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The Chinese Feast on Virginia's Turtles

Benjamin Colteaux

With the coming of spring, snapping turtles have emerged from their winter homes in the mud,  ready to reproduce and to spend the summer trolling ponds, lakes, rivers and streams.  They’re a hearty species with few natural enemies.  Now, however, turtles which can live more than a hundred years are in danger. 

As a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Benjamin Colteaux spent four months each year setting net traps for turtles in three parts of the state.

“The turtle enters through a hole, and then they can’t get back out again,” he explains. “The traps are equipped with flotation devices so the turtles can breathe, and they’re also equipped with punctured sardine cans, so they get a little snack for their effort as well.”

It was, he admits, a tough job that required a lot of driving.

“One of our sites was off the Rappahannock River.  One of our sites was on the Mattaponi River, and one of our sites was off the Chickahominy River, so that’s a lot of distance to cover, and when you are spending the rest of your day slogging through mud you get a little tired by the end of the day,” Colteaux says.

And, of course, the turtles he caught, measured, tagged and released were none too happy.

Credit Benjamin Colteaux
An unhappy snapper hisses as it is studied, then released as part of a VCU study of Virginia's turtle population.

“They are fond of the hiss,” he recalls. “It’s funny because it seems to us at least the younger, smaller turtles have a lot more attitude than the older, more mature turtles.”

But he was energized by the need to find out what was happening to Virginia’s turtle population.  It’s not that Americans are hunting them to extinction.

“The turtle isn’t really part of the average American’s diet any longer – a little bit in Louisiana, a little bit in Florida, a little bit locally here, but turtle is not on many menus,” Colteaux says.

In China, however, turtle meat and blood are prized food. “China has eaten through their turtle populations, and the snapping turtle being the second largest freshwater turtle in the United States makes it a good target to fill that international demand.”

About two dozen hunters applied for permits in this state, hauling their harvest across the border to Maryland, which is home to the nation’s largest turtle slaughterhouse.  Meat from males is canned while females may be exported live to China, where they’re farmed for their eggs.  So what’s the bottom line for our native snappers?

“Harvest has increased exponentially in the state of Virginia, and the majority of this harvest is being done by out-of-state harvesters,” Conteaux concludes.

The U.S. doesn’t track the amount of turtle meat it exports, and statistics from China are hard to come by, but Colteaux hopes states will collaborate in tracking the disappearance of snapping turtles.  Some are considering stronger regulations governing capture of turtles.  Others already limit the number of turtles a hunter can take, restrict the time of year for catching them and ban transport of turtles across state lines.

“In the case of Virginia, people are harvesting our turtles and selling them in Maryland,” he says, “so we lose out on any tax revenue.  Really all we have at the end of the day is the cost of the permit.”

Which is $50 – a small investment when you consider the market.

“For a male turtle you can get roughly a dollar a pound in most years. For a female turtle you get closer to $2 a pound, and if you were to get a gravid female – meaning that she still was carrying her eggs within her – you can get up to $2.50 a pound,” Colteaux explains. “When you look at the average size of a turtle – 16-18 pounds, and if you can harvest more than a couple, it’s not a bad payday.”

But for Virginia’s turtle population, this is bad news.  The animals themselves have few natural enemies, but their eggs and hatchlings are often eaten by raccoons, foxes and other wild animals.  And with females disappearing from our waters, it could take a very long time to rebuild the snapping turtle population.

That’s why the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is now considering some restrictions on turtle harvest, and Benjamin Colteaux has started an information exchange with other states – a collaboration that could lead to better regulation of the turtle market nationwide.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief