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Turtles Taken off the Alabama Menu

Asia has eaten through its own turtle population and is turning knife and fork to Alabama streams. With more than two million wild-caught American turtles vanishing into Oriental soups and medicines, Alabama enacted one of the toughest laws protecting the shelled reptiles, according to Jeff Miller, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

As a state with one of the highest numbers of turtle species, 25, Alabama has halted all commercial harvesting and sale of turtles and turtle eggs, according to Mark Sasser, non-game wildlife coordinator for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. Two Alabama species are federally protected and seven are protected by the state.

“Turtles are important to our ecosystem. Like vultures, they feed on a lot of dead and decaying matter,” says Sasser.

While a handful of licensed turtle farmers serving the pet market are exempt, the ban extends to all state waters, public and private, in an effort to close loopholes for wild harvesters.

“No one can claim to be selling turtles off of granddaddy’s farm,” says Sasser.

The concern is fueled by a low reproduction rate. The average female lays 20 eggs a season, resulting in one or two adults. Hatchlings who survive need three to five years to mature, according to Thane Wibbels, a professor of biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“Everything eats a turtle,” says Miller.

Removing as few as 20 adult turtles can have a devastating impact, Wibbels says.

“One trapper can go through a stream and in one pass, doom a turtle population to extinction,” says Miller.

With black-knobbed map turtles commanding as much as $150 apiece as pets, poachers could earn thousands on the black market, so penalties are stiff. The maximum penalty is $500 and a year in jail. 

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