The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday that it is proposing threat status for alligator turtles – Huge reptiles with barbed shells that lurk at the bottom of slow lakes and streams, luring their prey into their mouths by pulling out a worm-like lure.
Each state in their range now protects them, but the long-lasting effects of trapping reptiles by Turtle soup are some of the reasons their numbers are now so low, the agency said.
“Alligator snapper are some of the most ferocious and savage creatures in the Southeast, but overexploitation and habitat destruction have put their lives on the line,” Elise Bennett, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release.
The turtles are suffering the effects of “decades and decades of exploitation,” said Bennett, whose organization sued for the protection of the species, in an interview.
Alligator snapping turtles can live for 80 years, and males have been known to weigh up to 249 pounds (113 kilograms) with shells up to 29 inches (74 centimeters) long. Their jaws are strong enough to break bone.
There are an estimated 360,000 in 12 states, but without protection, their number is likely to plummet to 5% of that or less in 30 to 50 years, the Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday online. Advance of a Federal Register notice scheduled for Tuesday.
They were once found in Kansas and Indiana, but now live in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, the agency said.
“The range has contracted in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and possibly Oklahoma,” he noted.
All of those states are located along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The service proposed threat status in April for the related Suwannee Alligator snapping turtle, found in the Suwannee River Basin in Georgia and Florida.
It is legal to catch alligator snapping turtles only in Louisiana, where recreational fishermen are allowed one per day, and Mississippi, which limits recreational catch to one per year, the federal agency said.
The feds propose a threat status for the alligator snapping turtle. # USPoli # AlligatorSnappingTurtle
That would no longer be allowed if, after a comment period, the turtles enter the threatened list, Bennett said.
“Commercial harvests of turtle soup products peaked in the late 1960s and 1970s,” states the Fish and Wildlife Service advisory.
“In addition, many restaurants served turtle soup and purchased large quantities of alligator snapping turtles from hunters in the southeastern states,” he continued. “In the 1970s, the demand for turtle meat was so high that three to four tons of alligator snapping turtles were caught per day in the Flint River in Georgia.”
The animals are long-lived but grow slowly, do not sexually mature until they are between 11 and 21 years old, and take an average of 31 years to reproduce successfully, the agency said. They also do not lay a large number of eggs, and many other animals eat eggs and young turtles, so the indiscriminate capture had long-lasting effects.
Alligator snapping turtles have an average of 27 eggs per nest with one clutch per year, while sea turtles they average 110 and lay multiple nets each season.
Poaching remains a problem, the notice said, noting that three men were convicted in 2017 from collecting 60 large alligator snapping turtles in one year in Texas and bringing them across state lines.
Adults can swallow hooks or drown after being hooked on a variety of lines or caught in nets.