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Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 12:00pm

New Turtle Harvest Limits Approved

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board of Directors unanimously passed new rules protecting freshwater turtles from being taken from the wild. Before the vote Georgia was the only state in the Southeast without them. The changes will end years of unlimited collection.

An alligator snapping turtle creeps slowly across the yard of the Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area in Forsyth. In the 1970’s thousands of this native Georgia species were captured and sold to make soup in the U.S. By 1992 they were added to the endangered species list.

Now thousands of other freshwater turtles are being caught and shipped to Asia. Once there they are eaten, turned into medicine, or sold as pets. DNR herpetologist John Jensen says the Chinese have eaten many of their own turtles into extinction.

“It’s clear that there is a booming demand for turtles, especially in Southeast Asia now that they’ve kind of wiped out their own native species. And the demand is now focused towards the next hotspot of turtles in the world, which is the Southeastern U.S.”

And it’s a hotspot because the southeastern U.S. has one of the largest turtle diversity’s in the world with 27 species.

In 2005 the state added turtle regulations to their wildlife management plan, but took no action. Three years later environmentalists asked for emergency rules, but officials said it wasn’t necessary.

“A lot of other states were creating regulations at the time that we still didn’t have anything in the books. And just through the grapevine and through tips from others we were made aware that lots of trappers were moving their operations to Georgia because of our lack of regulation.”

Jensen says just over a year ago the state finally did act, assembling a group of stakeholders including turtle farmers, trappers, and scientists to work on new rules. Lawmakers also passed legislation requiring the DNR to take action.

Earlier this month the DNR held a hearing in Macon. North Georgia turtle farmer David Hem was there. He traps wild snapping turtles for breeding stock.

“I don’t sell the meat or anything. I have my own turtles, my own ponds. I dig eggs every season and sell the babies after I hatch them and get shipped. Probably 99 percent of them go to China.”

The new rules will limit his take to 300 snapping turtles a year. He’ll also have to report his catch to the DNR.

Rudy Agnew’s been trapping his whole life near Savannah. He sells adult turtles to the food trade and thinks the limits are unnecessary.

“If you had 100 people in there and they all took 100 turtles apiece, that wouldn’t even put a dent in the population. So, I don’t know what they’re worried about.”

But scientist Laura Smith from the Joseph Jones Ecological Center in Newton disagrees. She says because turtles mate late in life, and many babies never make it to adulthood there is reason to be concerned.

“We think that common snapping turtles in particular have been harvested pretty heavily in some areas. So, their populations locally might be declining.”

DNR officials hope to prevent that and say the rules will allow them to monitor population changes. The regulations set limits based on species, require reporting to the state, and establish permit requirements for trappers and farms. The new rules go into effect in 30 days.