Scientists, environmentalists push to protect S.C. turtles

COLUMBIA -- River cooters, sunning on a log, rank near the top of classic outdoor South Carolina scenes.

With their dinner-plate-sized shells and long, yellow-streaked necks, the turtles reluctantly plop into the water and dive away when boats draw near. But some scientists worry the turtle-on-the-log image itself could be slipping away because of South Carolina's lack of regulations on the capture and sale of freshwater turtles.

As the Asian market for turtle meat has boomed, other Southeastern states have put restrictions in place in recent years. Texas, one of the last holdouts, passed turtle export regulations last year.

"We're the last state where it's just open warfare on turtles," said Scott Pfaff, curator of herpetology at Riverbanks Zoo.

"It's the only animal exploited for food (in South Carolina) that requires no permit, so the species is being exterminated and South Carolina gets nothing."

Pfaff and other turtle fans are pushing a bill H.4392 that would ban the sale of eight turtle species. A House subcommittee Tuesday is scheduled to take up the legislation along with an even more restrictive bill H.3275 that would make it illegal to export any turtles from the state.

Turtle trapping wasn't a problem in the United States until Asian economies boomed in the 1990s, especially in China, allowing middle-class families to afford turtle meat. The appetite for the meat quickly reduced the population of many species in Asia to endangered status.

U.S. companies began to fill the void. World Chelonian Trust, an international turtle conservation group, reported more than 31 million turtles legally were exported from the United States from 2003 through 2005.

Most were raised in aquaculture farms, and some ended up in pet shops. But about 2.3 percent of those turtles, or 737,000 turtles, were captured in the wild. Most of those were bound for dinner tables overseas.

Because there are no regulations, S.C. officials say it's impossible to come up with an accurate number of turtles taken from the Palmetto State. However, one Louisiana turtle farmer claimed to take 30,000 turtles from South Carolina in 2003.

State officials don't necessarily believe that claim.

But they're sure the losses to all trappers are in the thousands each year, more likely in the tens of thousands.

While that would be a tiny percentage of the state's turtle population, the loss concerns scientists.

Turtles are long-lived creatures that reproduce late in life. "It's not a species set up to sustain the kind of harvest we're seeing," said Steve Bennett, a herpetologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Statistics on freshwater turtle exports from Texas indicate the population can be depleted quickly, Pfaff said. High levels of exports began in 2003 and peaked in 2004. The next year, exports of three common species river cooters, Florida cooters and yellowbelly sliders dropped by 75 percent.

Peter Paul van Dijk, director of tortoise and freshwater tortoise biodiversity for the Virginia-based Conservation International, has been pushing for more restrictive state laws.

"The situation is getting worse and worse in places where there are no restrictions on exploitation," van Dijk said.

Some are less convinced regulations are necessary.

State Rep. William Witherspoon, R-Conway, has been fishing on Pee Dee rivers for decades. "In the summer, I see seven or eight turtles on nearly every log," Witherspoon said. "I can't see any decline in population."

Earl Conner, a St. Stephen resident, used to make a few dollars helping Lowcountry landowners clear turtles out of their ponds. He then would sell the turtles to out-of-state processors.

He would put bait, often sardines, in wire devices similar to crab traps. The odor would draw in 20 or 30 turtles in a day.

The proposed legislation would have little impact on Conner now. He quit dealing with turtles because the market price has fallen in the past few years. Turtle experts acknowledge the export market is soft because Asian aquaculture operations have become better at raising their own turtles.

"With the price of gas now, I can't make nothing off it anymore," Conner said.

Like Witherspoon, Conner doesn't believe turtle populations are shrinking.

"I pulled 950 turtles from one pond" in 2003, he said Tuesday. "I bet there's 950 back in there now."

Mississippi stop finds S.C. turtles

Turtle scientists say the decline might not be obvious until it's too late.

"By the time you notice it, you've reduced the population by 30 to 50 percent," van Dijk said. "It's very easy to push a population into decline, and it's hard to reverse. It can take decades to recover."

Prodded by scientists, most Southeastern states in recent years have placed restrictions on freshwater turtles. (Saltwater turtles such as loggerheads face a whole different set of pressures.)

Texas joined the parade last year, prohibiting commercial collection of all wild freshwater turtles from public land and waters.

In 2003, South Carolina was among the leaders, when the state Department of Natural Resources approved temporary special regulations that banned taking seven turtle species. But permanent regulations require legislative action, and a 2004 bill that would have continued the regulations died in the Senate.

Subsequent bills have failed to gather steam.

In the meantime, turtles leave the state much faster than their legs could take them.

In September 2005, Homeland Security officers in Mississippi stopped a pickup truck, suspicious about the legality of the hundreds of turtles in wire traps in the bed of the truck and a small trailer pulled behind it.

The driver, a Louisiana-based turtle wrangler, insisted his cargo was from South Carolina and was completely legal.

The Homeland Security officers called the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Bennett had to say the man had broken no S.C. laws.