Background on Missouri Turtles
Turtles are the oldest living reptiles on Earth and have been alive for 200 million years. They evolved alongside the dinosaurs, though have changed little since then. Missouri is home to 17 species of turtles, which can be classified into three groups: hard-shelled aquatic, soft-shelled aquatic, and hard-shelled land. Missouri’s turtles are beneficial scavengers and maintain our water quality. Unfortunately, turtles are the most threatened group of vertebrates. Wild collection is the primary cause of turtle decline. Thankfully Great Rivers protected these vulnerable animals.
Why Commercial Collection is Harmful
The wild capture of common snapping turtles has been increasing consistently in the past years. Thousands of wild freshwater turtles in Missouri were caught in the last decade, mainly for export to East Asia where they are consumed and used for medicinal purposes. The smooth softshell international trade is relatively small, but spiny softshells are widely traded internationally for both the pet trade and consumption. International trade has also increased harvesting pressure in the U.S. because high consumption rates depleted native populations in East Asia.
Wild freshwater turtles face population pressure from overharvesting as well as urbanization. Overharvesting adds to the threats of water pollution, habitat loss, and automobile hits. In addition, traits such as delayed female maturation, relatively low fertility, and long generation times make these turtles more vulnerable to population decline from commercial harvesting. Scientists have repeatedly documented that any significant level of wild collection of freshwater turtles results in population declines. One 2014 study found no level of harvest could be sustainable for softshells and that snappers could only withstand minimum rates of juvenile harvest, and could not withstand any adult harvest.
The commercial collection of turtles also poses a threat to the health of ecosystems that turtles inhabit and the health of humans who consume turtles. The commercial collection of turtles poses a risk to other species (some being protected) that are accidentally caught. Turtles are important to the ecosystem as they feed on aquatic vegetables, dead animals, snails, aquatic insects, fish, and crayfish. Therefore population decline of these turtles has the potential to negatively impact local food web structure, nutrient cycling, and energy flow. Consuming freshwater turtles can also be harmful to humans because of the high concentrations of pesticides and metals that have been found in them.
Great Rivers Protects Missouri Turtles
On August 24th, 2016, Great Rivers and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the Missouri Department of Conservation to end the unlimited commercial collection of the wild freshwater turtles. At the time, holders of commercial fishing permits were allowed to take an unlimited amount of common snapping turtles, spiny softshell turtles, and smooth softshell turtles with no closed season in commercial waters. Such waters included parts of the Missouri, Mississippi, and St. Francis Rivers, a total of 1,100 river miles according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Due to the various harms caused by the unlimited commercial collection of turtles, many states had already ended the commercial trapping of native freshwater turtles or had strict regulations at the time the petition was filed. Of the states that share a border with Missouri, only Arkansas had also allowed the unlimited commercial collection of turtles, while Kansas, Illinois, and Iowa banned commercial collection. Therefore, Great Rivers and the Center of Biological Diversity also believed that stopping the unlimited commercial collection of the freshwater turtles in Missouri would demonstrate that the turtle trade is strictly regulated and enforced in the region.
Commercial Collection is Banned in MO!
On October 21st, 2016, the Missouri Department of Conservation responded to Great Rivers’ and Center of Biological Diversity petition and expressed similar concerns about the impact of unlimited commercial harvesting on these freshwater turtles. The Department stated that they would consider the proposed changes in the petition. Almost a year later, the Missouri Department of Conservation proposed a ban on the commercial collection of these turtles, and on March 1, 2018, the law finally went into effect. Great Rivers is pleased that the Missouri Department of Conservation made the right decision to protect these important animals. This was a huge victory for the health of Missouri’s turtles and its waterways!
Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is a Missouri-based public interest law firm that provides free services to individuals, organizations and citizen groups working to protect the environment and public health. We receive no government funding and rely on donations to sustain our work.