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Turtle Populations Dropping Due To Commercial Harvesting

March 26, 2009

Conservationists fear turtle populations could suffer permanent damage due to the increasing demand for turtle harvesting in Southeast Asia, the Associated Press reported.

Fred Janzen, an Iowa State University professor who studies ecology, said freshwater turtle populations have plunged in Asian countries where turtle meat is a delicacy.

Turtle harvesting has increased from 29,000 pounds in 1987 to 235,000 pounds in 2007 in Iowa alone, where data shows that the number of licensed harvesters more than quadrupled to 175 people during that time.

The state Fish and Game Commission in Arkansas showed that an average of 196,460 aquatic turtles a year were harvested from 2004 to 2006.

In 2007, the commercial collection of all wild turtles was banned in Texas and regulators in Florida are considering a ban by April 15.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said in November that continued commercial harvesting “could result in long term impacts very quickly.”

Earlier this month, the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity called the commercial turtle harvest “unsustainable” and asked officials in eight Midwestern and southern states to ban harvesting.

Some 24 other conservation and public health groups are working alongside the Arizona organization to send petitions to all eight of those states, raising questions about the safety of eating turtle meat and the increasing number of turtles being captured for commercial reasons.

Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the center, said people in states where there’s either no regulation or lax regulations were literally strip mining streams.

“We’re going to see some pretty catastrophic results in terms of the number of turtles being taken. It’s way beyond anything that’s sustainable,” he added.

Officials in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee all received the emergency petitions.

Should they decide to pursue a ban or not, officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources have 60 days to respond to the center’s petition and must let the center know the agency’s intentions and can also ask for clarification of the center’s data.

However, Iowa officials said that while they are concerned about overharvesting, they hope to gain a better handle on the turtle populations before setting limits.

An official measure pending in the Legislature would require commercial buyers and harvesters to report sales information to help them better gage turtle populations.

The bill also would make it harder for harvesters to underreport their yields, according to Martin Konrad, an executive officer in the Department of Natural Resources’ fishing bureau.

Konrad acknowledged there was a level of concern within the department over the harvest of turtles, but no defensible data has shown that turtle populations are declining or were in need of greater protection.

“Once turtle populations are depleted,” Janzen said. “It could take decades for a recovery to take hold even if harvests are sharply limited.”

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