Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife proposes ban on commercial harvesting of snapping turtles

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 5/31/02

Kynast and Jones agree that commercial harvesting of snappers is unsustainable because the snapping turtle is at the northern edge of its range and is barely able to hold on in Maine even in the absence of human disturbance.

In a surprise turnaround, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) is now proposing a ban on the commercial harvesting of snapping turtles. The shift, based on a re-evaluation of turtle biology and public comment, could spark an outcry from trappers, who so far have not entered the debate.

The departmentís advisory council met May 30 in Augusta, two weeks after a public hearing on proposed rules to restrict the currently unfettered take. They had expected to vote and settle the issue for now. Instead, commissioner Lee Perry put on the table a prohibition that was recommended by his staff.

After a go-around over whether there should be another public hearing, the 10-member council agreed to send the amended proposal out for a hearing and public comment. Taking and possessing snappers for personal use would not be affected by the ban plan.

Susanne Kynast, a recent graduate of the University of Maine at Machias and local turtle researcher, called IFWís new tack "fantastic. I always thought the department would do the right thing," she said. "All of a sudden, the [biological] information was there, and they took a pro-active look at management." Jody Jones of Maine Audubon Society credited Kynastís study of snappers in Washington County with influencing IFW to change its proposal. "We are thrilled that IFW did the right thing," she said. "What a surprising treat."

Kynast and Jones agree that commercial harvesting of snappers is unsustainable because the snapping turtle is at the northern edge of its range and is barely able to hold on in Maine even in the absence of human disturbance. They pointed out that the long-lived snappers donít reproduce until almost 20 years old and thereís a very high mortality of their young between hatching and breeding age (99.2 percent for females in northern populations excluding nest deaths).

Adult mortality of only 10 percent will cut the population here in half in only 15 years, and roads are already a significant cause of adult kills in Maine, according to Kynast. Jones said the ability to recover turtle populations once they are depleted is questionable.

There are just 14 trappers who have Maine permits to harvest turtles for commercial purposes Ė mostly for sale as canned meat to foreign markets. In written comments to IFW, Kynast said that trapping is currently low here because most participants are unaware that itís profitable. Due to increasing protection elsewhere in the U. S. and Canada, outside trappers are seeking to expand their activities in to Maine, she said.

Chinese turtle trappers are moving into the U.S. with large-scale operations capable of "removing over 10,000 turtles within weeks, as the recent seizure of illegal turtles destined for the Asian food market in Hong Kong has shown," Kynast said. If such large operations came to Maine, they could wipe out the native populations in one season, she asserted.

Commissioner Perry told the rule-making council that the department has been concerned about the commercial harvest for a long time because thereís so little data about the snappersí population status in Maine. Yet, he doubted that "anyone disagrees that their reproductive capability is rather limited." Studies done in other northern states with snappers, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, and Canada have led to strong limits on commercial harvest or outright bans. Neighboring New Hampshire is currently drafting a rule to restrict or prohibit commercial harvest.

The proposed rule that Perry did not present to the council for a vote would have shortened the turtle harvesting season, given additional protection to females, established a reporting requirement and set a fee for a permit.

Perry conceded that his new proposal was a "significant change" in direction but said the department needs to be conservative in its management approach. He suggested that the proposed rule be amended instead of withdrawn. That way, a public hearing would not be required, and the council could vote on a prohibition at its July meeting, Perry said.

His idea was to send out a notice of the new proposed ban and take public comment for 30 days. In the meantime, already permitted trappers could finish the spring season on turtles, Perry said. Mark Stadler, IFWís wildlife director, called attention to more than 300 communications the agency received about the proposed restrictions on the commercial turtle harvest. "The absolutely majority were in opposition" to commercial taking, he said.

Council member Tenley Meara of Topsham supported the ban as "the responsible thing to do. We have to prohibit [commercial harvesting]," she said. Don Palmer of Rangeley, agreed, saying that it was right for the department "to err on the side of conservatism."

Skip Trask, representing the Maine Trappers Association, questioned whether a public hearing could be forced by petition signatures and went on to say that the departmentís action could set a precedent for banning other species, such as fur bearers. "I think this is a lot bigger issue than 14 harvesters," he said.

Council member Matt Libby of Ashland wanted a public hearing because the proposed ban would be "a major change." Tenley Meara pointed out that commercial harvesters didnít participate in the previous public hearing on May 13. But Ken Elowe, head of IFWís Bureau of Resource Management, replied, "You wouldnít expect to hear from them . . . they thought they could live with what was being proposed then."

Trask said the trappers werenít aware the department now wants to impose a ban. "Youíre certainly going to hear from them now," he predicted. "I think doing it this way [changing direction], youíve got to give them an opportunity to speak" at a public hearing. If not, the department would be "slamming the door on them without due process" and the issue probably would end up back in the legislature, Trask said.

"This is long from over," he asserted. "I hope the council is basing this on data, rather than 300 to 400 calls from people who are antsy to close something." Tenley Meara responded, "I think there is data." Libby said heíd like "to hear from the other side."

Elowe asserted that the new proposal "is in line with what we know is the biology of the critter . . . it is the right way to go. If there needs to be a hearing, maybe thatís the right thing to do." Without a hearing, said Libby, there wouldnít be an opportunity for feedback that can happen in a face-to-face meeting. Iím not anti-turtle . . . weíre setting a precedent." Perry agreed that a hearing could be held. "There would probably be much more information on the biological basis for [the ban]."

Outgoing council chairman Harold Brown of Camden said he was worried that the commercial use of turtle meat poses a liability problem for the department. "Weíre allowing heavy lead metals [in the liver] to be eaten and it may be worse than livers in moose" that the state doesnít allow sold commercially, he said.

IFW biologist Phillip deMaynadier said in a memo to Stadler that there is "a growing body of evidence that snapping turtles (probably due to benthic scavenging habits and long lives) from some waterbodies carry heavy loads of contaminants including DDT, PCBs, mercury, lead and other heavy metals. In Maine," he said, "two snapping turtles tested from the Penobscot River in a study by the Penobscot tribe in the mid-90s found PCBs and mercury at levels similar to or exceeding current fish advisory levels. Snapping turtles retain contaminants in their fat, liver, eggs and to a lesser degree, muscle," he said.

Lance Wheaton, a council member from Forest City, said heís not against turtles either, but "we should proceed slowly and not get into something we have to take care of. . . ." It was his impression that Washington County has plenty of snappers and suggested that IFW develop its own biological date "to support a ban" instead of relying on out-of-state studies.

The department will schedule a public hearing soon and have the council vote on the proposal at their July meeting.