MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama has outlawed commercial harvesting of turtles from the state's freshwater bodies, leaving Asia's thriving market to look elsewhere for the highly desirable meat.
"Asia has a very strong appetite for turtles, and they depleted many of their species for the simple reason of overharvest for food, and the same thing would happen here if we allowed it," said Mark Sasser, non-game wildlife coordinator with the Alabama Conservation and Natural Resources department.
The rule passed the department's advisory board in March and took effect April 1. It outlaws all commercial harvesting of wild freshwater turtles for sale or trade, but allows hobbyists to continue to collect two per day.
"Some fishermen in the South still like to eat turtles," Sasser said. "Some of the protected species, there's a black market for them for pets."
The two-turtle-per-day allowance would not extend to protected species. Turtles collected by hobbyists or ordinary Alabamians may not be sold or traded.
Previously, commercial harvesters had to obtain a free license from the state of Alabama and could only collect 10 per day. They also had to file monthly reports on how many they harvested, but Sasser said the department got poor results on that reporting.
Auburn University zoologist Jim Godwin said the large appetite for turtles in Asia has caused the extinction and endangerment of many species, as well as a sharp rise in the import of turtles from the United States.
"It's a growing problem," Godwin said. "We've got a very high turtle diversity in the Southeast — Alabama ranks second worldwide in freshwater turtle diversity."
Godwin said it's hard to measure how large a problem commercial turtle harvesting is in Alabama or how great an impact the ban will have — there just isn't the research or reporting to document how many are lost each year.
Most of the eggs that female turtles lay throughout their lifetime are lost to natural predators, and the females tend to grow larger and have more meat, making them a target for harvesting, Godwin said.
In order to protect the turtle populations of the Southeast U.S., more states will need to adopt similar measures, he said.
The Center for Biological Diversity called Alabama's rule one of the most protective of wild freshwater turtles. The Center estimates that U.S. turtle traders capture and sell more than 2 million wild turtles each year.
Between 2008 and 2009 the Center identified 12 states as having inadequate regulations to protect wild freshwater turtles — Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
According to the Center, since petitions calling for stricter regulations were circulated in those states, Oklahoma has enacted a ban on commercial harvest in public waters, while Florida halted almost all harvesting from public and private waters
In 2009, South Carolina limited turtle harvesting to nine native species, but allowed no more than 10 turtles to be taken at one time and no more than 20 in a year.
Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries assistant chief of law enforcement Mark Rouleau says his division will be vigilant in looking for people illegally harvesting turtles.
"As with anything when there's money involved, you can't stop it all," Rouleau said. "I'm sure there will be some folks who will continue. We will be aggressive with our enforcement of the program and prosecute when necessary."