IF&W Outlaws Commercial Harvest of Snapping Turtles

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). July 26, 2002.

IF&W proposed ending the commercial take because little is known about the current biological status of Maine snappers.

Despite a plea from Maineís top turtle trapper, John Rogers, the advisory council of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) has voted unanimously to outlaw the commercial harvest of snapping turtles.

Commissioner Lee Perry had been a consistent supporter of a ban, and at the councilís meeting on July 25, he urged them to ensure the sustainability of snappers, which donít breed until 20 years in the north. "While I have no reason to believe that snapping turtles are threatened with extinction in Maine, there is reason to be concerned about the viability of the population," he said.

The skirmish over snappers was relatively short-lived, partly because there are so few commercial turtle harvesters, and public support for a ban was overwhelming. IF&Wís proposal struck a nerve in the animal rights community, stirring an outpouring from across the U. S. and even to England.

Commissioner Perryís file of supportive letters and e-mails was several inches thick, including letters with colorful drawings of turtles and "I love youís" from schoolchildren in Cape Elizabeth. Council member Sara Dyer remarked that she had received "more e-mails than I've ever seen before."

IFW proposed ending the commercial take because little is known about the current biological status of Maine snappers. No one even knows how many snappers, one of the largest of North American turtles, live here, but itís at the fringe of its northern range. The fact they are so slow to breed makes them highly vulnerable to overexploitation by trappers, according to Susanne Kynast, who has spent several years researching snappers in Washington County as a student at the University of Maine at Machias.

More states are passing bans on commercial harvests, driving buyers and trappers to states that have open seasons. While the U. S. market for snappers isnít what it once was, according to John Rogers, the snapper is in big demand in Asia. There is no data that can guarantee a commercial harvest at any level in Maine is biologically defensible, according to Perry.

There are only five people who currently have state licenses to take snappers commercially, and little was heard from them at the July 8 public hearing where Rogers passionately spoke against a ban. Rogers, who is something of a celebrity in the turtle trapping world, said he was "damn mad" about IF&Wís proposal and being shut out of a state where he has hunted snappers for a half century.

Maine is at the fringe of northern range of the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina).

Turtle ban advocates had distorted the truth about the status of the reptile here, Rogers claimed. But his testimony wasnít convincing to the council, which earlier this summer indicated they supported a commercial prohibition on snappers.

Turtle advocate Kynast championed the ban. She was elated at the advisory councilís support and received public praise from one member. "I applaud her dedication and resolve," said Ken Bailey, referring to Kynastís indefatigable efforts to provide policymakers and any interested party, including John Rogers, with reams of scientific information on turtle ecology.

Ironically, Rogers called Kynastís work in Washington County "laudable." He said they might be on opposite sides but mentioned in his public hearing testimony that they talked one night past 1 a.m. and discussed "taking a trip together wherein I would show her snapping turtle waters with big, fast-growing snappers like she has never been."

Kynast, who intends to continue research on snappers as a graduate student, was highly critical of Rogersí public hearing statements in favor of the commercial harvest. She alleged that he presented information that lacked credibility and that he misrepresented scientific facts on population dynamics.

Maine began regulating snappers in 1987 when a law was passed that required turtle harvesters to obtain a permit from IF&W. Rules were adopted that prohibited the use of explosives, poisons and other such substances to take turtles, as well as those specifying humane treatment and regulating the reintroduction of turtles into the wild. In 1993, the harvest of all turtles and snakes for export, sale or commercial purposes was enacted, except for snappers.

Concern about the status of snappers led to passage of a new law in 2001 that granted IF&W authority to regulate the commercial harvest, while continuing the allowance of taking snappers for personal use. In April, 2002, IF&W proposed season dates and length limits on snappers -- restrictions designed to reduce the harvest of adult females. But the following month, after a review of the biological evidence and strong public support for a closure, the department retracted the proposal. Instead, Perry asked the council to approve a ban Ė action that then required a public hearing.

What little research done on snappers in Maine has come mostly from Kynast and she concentrated on just one county. That left IF&W depending on the findings of biologists from other northern states with snapper populations. Their research found that recruitment into the breeding population is one individual per 1,445 eggs, which means that a female turtle will have to lay roughly 3,000 eggs for population sustainability.

The findings concluded that snappers canít withstand adult mortality from all causes (trapping, highway mortality, development) greater than 10 percent of the population. "In effect there could be no harvestable surplus" in Maine, Perry said.

A female snapping turtle will have to lay roughly 3,000 eggs for population sustainability.

IF&W solicited public comment again almost three weeks ago. Only four people Ė three of whom had trapped turtles in the past Ė testified in opposition to the proposed commercial harvest closure. John Rogers, the most knowledgeable turtle harvester in Maine, testified that the turtle population is low here because the habitat is not as productive as that in other states. He no longer harvests turtles here because theyíre not sufficiently large to warrant the effort, said Rogers, who works in New York State now.

However, Rogers was aware of one Asian buyer who had solicited 5,000 pounds of small female turtles Ė a deal that Maine trappers said they couldnít fill because they donít have large enough vehicles to do so efficiently. Live turtles bring $200 to $500 per piece on the Asian market but only about $2 a pound in the U. S., according to Kynast.

During the councilís final discussion of the issue, there was only a passing mention of the animal rights aspect of the turtle issue and no mention of the manner in which the creatures are killed. Kynast said that "harvest . . . involves extreme cruelty since the low oxygen requirements of the turtleís brain result in full awareness for hours or possibly days after the head has been severed from the body."

Member Don Palmer asked if the department would be setting "a dangerous precedent" because they lacked the scientific data from Maine on which to base a ban. "I donít think so," responded Perry. "Turtles are unique in the lack of information."

Ken Bailey said the decision should be a "strictly biological issue," not one of animal rights. "We do need to establish biological data, but thereís not enough resources to do it," he acknowledged, suggesting perhaps private funding could be found.

Some councilors wanted to stipulate that the department revisit the ban in a couple of years, but member Harold Brown didnít think that should be tied to the vote. "Ontarioís research does it for me, and I donít need to revisit the issue, he said. "We are not imposing on the individual" with a commercial ban, Brown pointed out, and "anyone can still harvest a snapper for a good spaghetti sauce."