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Environmental lawyers renew call for state ban on turtle trapping

An alligator snapping turtle, one of several wild turtle species that live in Missouri.
File Photo | United States Fish and Wildlife Service
The alligator snapping turtle is one of several freshwater turtles that live in Missouri.

Environmental attorneys have petitioned the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to ban commercial trapping of the state's freshwater turtles. 

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Great Rivers Law Center filed the petition Wednesday, arguing that harvesting turtles has led significantly to the decline of many species. In the last five years, more than 17 million freshwater turtles have been exported from the U.S. to Asia to be processed into food and traditional Chinese medicine.

Missouri is one of a few states that doesn't impose a limit on how many turtles anyone with a commercial fishing permit may take. 

"It's unfortunate that our state's environment is being harmed for sending these turtles largely overseas," said Bruce Morrison, general council at the Great Rivers Law Center.

Missouri is home to many freshwater species that include the common snapping turtle and the eastern spiny softshell turtle.  Research has shown that they control aquatic plant populations and are a good indicator of a healthy waterway. 

"If the waterways are clean enough to support healthy turtle populations, then they're clean enough for us to swim in and use for water," said Collette Adkins, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "They're really a sign of a healthy environment." 

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the state Department of Conservation to ban turtle trapping in 2009, but that effort failed. This time, Adkins hopes the department will be convinced by additional research done in the last seven years, including a 2014 study by the University of Missouri-St. Louis. It indicated that some species of freshwater turtles cannot sustain even low rates of harvesting, given current population levels. 

The organization began its nationwide campaign to prohibit this practice a decade ago. Since then, several states, including Florida, Georgia and Alabama, have banned commercial turtle collection. 

The Missouri Department of Conservation must respond to the petition in 60 days. 

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.