The Center for Biological Diversity and several Arkansas-based environmental organizations petitioned the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission today to end commercial collection of the state’s wild turtles.
Currently turtle trappers can legally collect unlimited numbers of 14 types of turtle to sell domestically or export to Asian food, pet and medicinal markets.
If Arkansas bans collections, it would join a growing number of states preserving important wildlife and natural resources. In just the last week, New York banned commercial collection of diamondback turtles and Nevada halted commercial reptile collection. And last year Missouri agreed to consider turtle-trapping regulations. All of these actions were in response to work by the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Arkansas’ precious turtles shouldn’t be sacrificed so a few trappers can make a quick buck,” said Elise Bennett, a Center attorney dedicated to protecting rare reptiles and amphibians. “It’s time for the state to adopt common-sense measures to protect its turtles from unchecked exploitation.”
Arkansas allows turtle harvesting from waters across roughly half the state, including the entirety of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. According to Arkansas Game and Fish Commission harvest report records, 126,381 freshwater turtles were harvested from 2014 to 2016. This harvest was geographically concentrated, with two-thirds of those turtles taken from only five counties.
Scientists have repeatedly documented that freshwater turtles cannot sustain any significant level of wild collection without population-level impacts and declines. For example, a study of common snapping turtles demonstrated that a modest harvest pressure of 10 percent per year for 15 years could result in a 50 percent reduction in population size. And an Arkansas study found that turtles from populations in heavily harvested areas were significantly smaller than those from areas where harvesting is not permitted.
“Unlimited commercial turtle harvesting is bad for our rivers and bad for Arkansas,” said Glen Hooks, director of the Arkansas Sierra Club. “The science clearly points to the need to protect our state’s delicate resources. We call on our Arkansas wildlife regulators to join other states in our region and end this practice immediately.”
“The wholesale exploitation of aquatic turtle populations in Arkansas threatens the health of our water bodies,” said Cindy Franklin, president of the Audubon Society of Central Arkansas. “Aquatic turtles, from formidable snapping turtles to diminutive map turtles, serve an important purpose as the principal scavengers of our aquatic ecosystems. Without turtles to consume dead fish and debris on the bottoms of our waterways, water quality can decline and become unpleasant for wildlife and people alike.”
“Historically, Arkansas had one of the highest levels of aquatic biodiversity in the nation, but that abundance is rapidly declining because our native species are not protected,” said Debbie Doss, director at Arkansas Watertrails Partnership. “Arkansas’ second largest economic engine is tourism, and much of that tourism depends on opportunities for wildlife viewing here in ‘The Natural State.’ Turtles are popular on our water trails and can always be counted on to put in an appearance. But now we are seeing fewer and fewer turtle species on our rivers. The last thing we need is to have our diversity raided from the outside. I hope we will do the right thing and ban the taking of these special creatures.”
“All research on commercial turtle harvesting shows that profitable levels of capture success are unsustainable,” said Bruce Kingsbury, director of the Environmental Resources Center at Indiana-Purdue University. “The reason for this is that turtles naturally have low levels of reproductive success, leading to a greater need for the persistence of adults over time so that they can keep trying to reproduce. Large-scale turtle trapping can also be disruptive to the natural habitat where the trapping occurs.”
Today’s petition was submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, Arkansas Sierra Club, Arkansas Watertrails Partnership, Audubon Society of Central Arkansas, Environmental Resources Center, Kory Roberts and John Kelly, a biologist who recently studied Arkansas’ turtle harvest.
Life-history characteristics such as delayed sexual maturity, dependence on high adult survival and high natural levels of nest mortality make turtles vulnerable to rapid declines from exploitation.
As part of a campaign to protect turtles in the United States, the Center has been petitioning states that allow commercial turtle collection to improve their regulations. In 2009 Florida responded by banning almost all commercial turtle collection from public and private waters. In 2012 Georgia approved state rules restricting commercial turtle collection and Alabama completely banned it. Most recently, in March, Iowa adopted new regulations setting closed seasons and possession limits for commercial turtle trappers.