Several conservation groups have petitioned the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to ban the trapping for sale of the state's wild turtles.
The conservation groups cited concerns that unlimited trapping of the slow-moving reptiles has led to declines in turtle numbers.
Turtles are often caught to be used as pets or for food. In some countries, consuming turtle meat is thought to be medicinally beneficial.
Trapping turtles is banned in several counties in the Ouachita and Ozark mountains as part of a larger fishing ban. In Arkansas, turtles are mostly caught in the eastern part of the state.
The submitted petition was signed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club's Arkansas chapter, Arkansas Water Trails Partnership, Audubon Society of Central Arkansas, Environmental Resources Center, Kory Roberts and biologist John Kelly.
The Center for Biological Diversity has submitted petitions across the United States seeking to stop commercial turtle trapping.
"Arkansas' precious turtles shouldn't be sacrificed so a few trappers can make a quick buck," Elise Bennett, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release.
The ban wouldn't affect turtle farms, said Bill Posey, an assistant chief of fisheries for the Game and Fish Commission. Rather, the ban would affect the people who have turtle harvest permits -- which allow them to catch turtles in the wild -- and turtle breeder dealer permits, which allow them to buy turtles caught in the wild.
The Game and Fish Commission has issued 27 turtle harvest permits and 12 turtle breeder dealer permits this year, Posey said. Those aren't all of the permits that are active, however, he said.
In 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity identified 12 states that still allowed commercial turtle collection, according to the groups' petition. Since then, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas have passed limitations and partial bans on commercial turtle trapping.
Arkansas allows people to trap 14 types of turtles for commercial use, according to the petition.
The number of wild turtles caught and purchased varies widely each year, with tens of thousands being bought annually in recent years, according to Game and Fish Commission data. More than 250,000 were sold in 2004.
This year, people have bought 5,375 turtles from nine species: common snapping, map, mud, painted, razorback musk, red-eared slider, river cooter, softshells and stinkpot. People who purchase wild turtles from dealers are required to report their acquisitions to the Game and Fish Commission, although people who catch the turtles are not. The Game and Fish Commission uses the numbers to determine how many wild turtles were harvested.
Turtles are less of a commodity these days because the turtle market is depressed, Posey said. Many turtles were exported to East Asian countries that now are capable of breeding their own turtles, he said.
Posey said he is not aware of any research indicating a decline in Arkansas' turtle population. He said some eastern Arkansas counties could probably sustain continued wild turtle harvesting, but the demand could likely be met with turtle farms rather than wild harvests.
"Everything that they're harvesting from the wild could be grown on a farm," he said. "It's not necessary to fuel the market."
The petition notes declines in the snapping turtle population and low recovery of the species in the upper Mississippi River, above Arkansas. Red-eared sliders, the most harvested turtle in Arkansas, are more prevalent in protected areas, according to the petition.
Conservation groups argue that eating turtle meat may pose a health risk to people because turtles are biologically inclined to accumulate toxins they encounter, and many waters are unclean.
Some Arkansas turtles are protected species, according to the Game and Fish Commission's 2017 Fishing Guidebook. The alligator snapping turtle cannot be taken from or imported into Arkansas. Some turtle farms sell alligator snapping turtles, but they were established before the ban on those turtles was put in place.
The western chicken turtle, ornate box turtle, and three-toed box turtle are also protected from commercial harvests, according to the petition. Other turtles are subject to unlimited collection.
The groups' petition will go to the Game and Fish Commission's staff for review, Posey said. It will likely be discussed along with other regulations in February. At that point, the Game and Fish Commission staff will decide whether to send the petition to its public oversight board.
Metro on 10/02/2017
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