Whit Gibbons

May 16, 2004

South Carolina and Louisiana have major problems with some of their senior citizens. As summer begins, Louisiana will have begun to address the problem for one group. South Carolina will still be seeking a solution for their denizens. The problem relates not to AARP members but to turtles: how to control their removal from the wild by commercial turtle trappers. Neither state can afford to lose many more of their native turtles and keep their natural heritage intact. Recent positive action by the Louisiana senate regarding one species bears mentioning.

One of the most magnificent reptiles in America is the alligator snapping turtle, a species that is fast disappearing from southern rivers and swamps. The giant turtle, one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world, gets bigger than the adults of some sea turtles. Typical adults can weigh more than 100 pounds and the record is more than 200. Alligator snappers have a come-hither scam that operates quite effectively with hungry fish. The turtle sits on the bottom with its mouth open. Its bright red tongue wiggles like a worm. As unsuspecting fish move in for a meal, they become a meal themselves when the unseen con artist slams its jaws shut.

Alligator snappers inhabit the Mississippi River drainage and are found as far east as southern Georgia, west to Texas, and north to Indiana, although not in the Carolinas. Once they were in virtually all large rivers throughout their geographic range. Last year their numbers were estimated to be less than 5 percent of what they once were, and still declining. All but one state (Louisiana) had passed laws to protect these mighty creatures from the assaults of commercial trapping. I think it safe to say that they are part of the natural world that most Americans would like to preserve.

Louisiana may actually make that a reality. Louisiana Senate Resolution No. 49 introduced by Sen. Robert J. Barham is "to urge and request the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to place a moratorium on the taking of alligator snapping turtles." The resolution notes that these turtles have "historically been a vital and integral part of the Louisiana wildlife ecosystem [and are] presently suffering excessive exploitation for meat in local commercial markets, as well as an increasing international market."

The impact of such a resolution will go far in setting the system right for alligator snappers in Louisiana. Other states should consider taking similar steps to protect their turtle species. Although resolutions are only suggestions, and the state's wildlife department does not have to honor them, such a suggestion by a state senate is a positive start. The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has now taken action and voted to "stop the taking and possession of alligator snapping turtles by anybody with a commercial license." Recreational trapping of alligator snappers was not affected.

I asked Dr. Joseph Pechmann, a biologist at the University of New Orleans, how he thought the Louisiana senate had ever been able to pass a resolution that would protect the turtles. "They accepted the idea that part of Louisiana's natural heritage was going to disappear if commercial harvest was allowed to continue. Recreational harvesting of alligator snappers is a pastime important to many in the state, but the current levels of commercial removal were clearly unsustainable."

The southeastern turtle saga is not over, and I'm not sure how it will end before meaningful regulations are in place in all states. I do know the loss of alligator snappers from the commercial scene will have little effect on the turtle soup au sherry at Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans. But I do not know whether the South Carolina legislature will realize that it must now step forward and take some action to protect its own turtles. When I asked Dr. Pechmann how he personally felt about the resolution to protect the giant turtles in Louisiana, he said, "It's about time." Let's hope tight restrictions on overharvesting will not be too late coming for alligator snappers in Louisiana, or for other turtles elsewhere.

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