The Globalization of the Turtle Trade

The Asian turtle crisis, driven largely by market demand from China, has decimated tortoise and freshwater turtle populations throughout Asia in recent decades. When wild populations were effectively exhausted locally, the trade expanded globally and began to put pressure on wild populations in the United States. Given the availability of shipment options, lax harvest regulations and other logistical conveniences, the trade of U.S. turtles to China quickly boomed, driven primarily by a small contingent of harvesters who tapped into a niche market. The insatiable demand for turtles as food, medicine or pets in China resulted in staggering export figures. As an example, 250,000 wild-caught turtles were shipped from a single airport in Texas from 2002 to 2005. A study by the World Chelonian Trust during that same period estimates that 31.8 million turtles, 97% farm-raised, were exported out of the U.S. With an improved infrastructure, harvests also supply a demand for turtles in state-side Asian markets (see the related article on Philadelphia‚Äôs Chinatown). Given the long life-span and low reproduction rates of turtles (with some species not being reproductively viable until 20 years or older), harvests at these levels have the potential to cause devastating crashes in a wild population. 

When this trend caught the attention of biologists and outdoor enthusiasts, groups began to push for legislation to better regulate the commercial harvest of chelonians at the state level. However, in some cases, legislators faced a very unique challenge in that they were trying to evaluate a situation in which turtles were disappearing faster than wild populations could be studied. Classified as non-game wildlife or fisheries resources in many states, turtle surveys and research have historically been given a low priority at the state level and little data existed on which to base legislative decisions. Some states tried to stem the tide by putting temporary regulations in place, while giving their biologists time to develop long-term harvest rules based on current population needs. However, in some places, this led to unexpected results. In 2006, Maryland’s state wildlife agency imposed a diamondback terrapin trapping ban from November to July, but allowed turtles to be trapped throughout the rest of the year. In that same year, the number of reported turtles harvested jumped to more than 10,000, which represented a twenty-fold increase from the previous year. The increase was indicative of increasing market demand, along with a response to the change in size limits that was a part of the change in regulation. In 2007, Maryland imposed a complete ban on diamondback terrapins.

A variety of groups throughout the country including the Center for Biological Diversity, NGOs, IUCN Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, community organizations, zoos and aquariums, have mobilized and petitioned their state wildlife agencies to regulate turtle harvest in recent years. Many have been successful and states have responded. Recent hard-fought battles in South Carolina and Florida have resulted in some of the strictest regulations in the country. Undoubtedly, as changes are made throughout the country, states that still allow unregulated harvest of their non-protected species (such as Georgia) can expect this debate to continue. Legislation protecting turtles from commercial harvest varies widely from state to state. Obviously, most do not allow the harvest of species listed as protected (endangered, threatened, etc.) at either the federal or state level. However, when harvesting with nets and traps, even these protected species are at risk of being trapped and potentially misidentified or suffering catch-related mortality. It is very difficult for wildlife inspectors to catch these species during export, when they are mixed in with shipments of hundreds or thousands of other turtles.

The biggest challenge facing states with legislation already in place is enforcement. Regulations vary widely and many states with a ban on commercial harvest share a border with states that do not, making the potential for poaching and false reporting (i.e. claiming that poached turtles were harvested legally in a neighboring state) very high. In addition, many state wildlife agencies do not have the manpower or capacity to enforce broad new regulations, especially for taxa that are widespread and harvested across hundreds of public and private ponds, streams, rivers and lakes. Nevertheless, outstanding enforcement efforts occur, including the recent indictment of 17 people for reptile trade by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. 

The summary that follows represents a ‚Äòsnapshot‚Äô of current turtle legislation across the eastern half of the United States, as it relates to commercial harvest ‚Äì turtles that are harvested and then sold. Details on harvest for personal use (as food, pets, etc.) are not included in this analysis. The full text of the applicable regulations can be obtained by contacting your state wildlife management agency.  Some trends appear, such as the fact that many states (even those that have banned the commercial harvest of all other species) continue to allow limitless harvest of common snapping turtles. Many TSA members are actively working on this issue in their home states via research (see related article), advocacy or other means. You are encouraged to educate yourself on this issue, as it is one that hits home by literally reaching into the ponds and streams where many of you may have developed your interest in turtles as a child.

Commercial harvest of common snappers and softshells permitted with free ‚Äúturtle catcher / dealer‚Äù permit.  Permit holders must comply with size limits and complete monthly reports regarding their catch and sales. No take or possession of more than 10 turtles per day from public waters for any reason.

Commercial harvest of all non-protected turtles, except alligator snapping, chicken and box turtles, is permitted with no limits. Licenses are required and harvests are to be reported to the state. Traps are to be checked regularly and equipment is to be tagged with identification. 

Unlimited, unregulated commercial harvest of common snapping turtles allowed. No permit required, unless using a hook and line. 

Seasonal commercial harvest of common snapping turtle and diamondback terrapin allowed with a license. Common snappers are subject to size limits, and there are bag limits on diamondback terrapins. Traps should be checked every 48 hours; no tagging requirement on traps.

Commercial harvest by individuals prohibited in July 2009. Limited commercial take will be allowed (with special permit) by registered aquaculture facilities to increase their breeding stock. Regulations are still being finalized and are designed to encourage the state‚Äôs turtle farms to become self-contained (without a need for wild harvest) in the near future. 

Unlimited commercial harvest of non-protected species allowed without permit, as turtles are classified as “nuisance” animal along with rats, mice, coyotes, armadillos, venomous snakes, groundhogs, etc. No limit on the number of nets or traps to be used. Legislation was proposed in 2009 to regulate harvest, but it failed to pass.

No commercial harvest allowed.

No commercial harvest allowed.

Commercial harvest of common snapping, softshell and painted turtles allowed with a permit. Possession limits equal 100 lb. of live turtles or 50 lb. of dressed turtles. Traps are to be tagged with identification and checked regularly.

Common snappers and softshells may be commercially harvested year-round with no limits. Some protected areas are outlined where harvesting is not permitted. Traps are to be checked regularly, but no tagging of traps is required. 

Traps must be checked daily and labeled ‚Äúturtle trap‚Äù, but no identification tag is required. Commercial harvest of alligator snapping turtles and box turtles is prohibited. Commercial harvest of other non-protected species allowed with license. No limits on legally harvested species except for diamondback terrapins which cannot be taken by a trap and have a season and size limit imposed. 

No commercial harvest allowed since 2002.

Commercial harvest of common snapping turtles is permitted to license holders. Size limits are imposed and reports must be submitted annually. Regulations are reviewed annually.

Commercial harvest of common snapping turtles is allowed year round with a special permit. Regulations include size limits, but no limits on the number of animals taken. State biologists are working on a proposal to end commercial harvest.

Commercial harvest of all reptiles and amphibians is prohibited.

Seasonal commercial harvest allowed with proper licensing; license requirement waived for residents younger than 18 for turtle racing. Size and bag limits imposed. No new commercial licenses are being issued at this time; only renewals.

Commercial harvest of snapping turtles allowed with a permit and size limit. 

Turtle harvesting permitted under sport fishing permit (for personal consumption) and also under commercial fishing permit.  For commercial turtle harvest on the three rivers in the state where it‚Äôs permitted, there is no bag limit, size limit, or closed season.

New Hampshire 
No commercial harvest allowed.

New Jersey
Seasonal commercial harvest of common snapping turtles allowed with special permit. No bag limits or size limits imposed.

New York
Commercial harvest of diamondback terrapin and common snapping turtles is allowed with the proper license; seasons, bag limits and size limits are imposed. Legal implements for harvest of diamondback terrapin include, dip nets, hand capture, seine nets and traps.  Traps must be designed for live capture only, tagged with identification and checked daily. The only legal implement for taking snappers is a firearm or a bow; no reports are required for this species.

North Carolina 
Commercial harvest of snapping, mud and musk turtles allowed with license; bag limits imposed.

Seasonal commercial harvest of snapping and softshell turtles allowed with no limits. Records of sale must be maintained for five years and traps must be tagged with identification. 

A three-year moratorium on commercial harvest from public waters passed in May 2008. Commercial harvest of all terrestrial turtles and of alligator snapping, chicken and map turtles from private waters is prohibited. Commercial harvest from private waters of other non-protected species is allowed with a license, no limits are imposed. 

Seasonal commercial harvest of common snapping turtles is allowed with a special permit. Regulations include bag limits, but no size limits. Traps must be tagged with identification. 

Rhode Island 
Commercial harvest of common snapping turtles is allowed with special permit. Traps must be tagged with identification. 

South Carolina
A single vehicle cannot transport more than 10 turtles at a time or 20 total in a year, out of the state. An exception is in place for yellowbelly and common snapping turtles harvested from private waters under a special permit issued by the state. There is no restriction on the sale of turtles harvested under this permit.

Common snapping turtle may be harvested commercially year round with no bag limits, only size limits. All non-protected species may be harvested in the Reelfoot Wildlife Management Area. Reports are required on all harvests and traps must be tagged with identification and checked regularly. 

Commercial turtle harvest is prohibited in public waters as of 2007. However, the commercial harvest of red-eared slider, common snapping and softshell turtles from private waters is allowed with no limits – a harvest permit and trip tickets (reporting forms) are required. The challenge unique to this situation is that Texas is 97% privately-owned.

Commercial turtle harvest allowed with special permit, no bag limits or size limits imposed.

Commercial harvest of snapping turtles is allowed with special permit. Seasons are outlined and harvest is subject to size limits, but no bag limits. Reports must be provided. 

West Virginia 
No commercial harvest allowed

No commercial harvest is allowed. Commercial license required for commercial harvest from border waters with states that allow commercial harvest.