By Verna Gates
SELMA, Alabama (Reuters) - A nationwide effort to ban harvesting of freshwater American turtles to satisfy hungry Asian markets is gaining momentum, with Alabama this weekend prohibiting collection of wild turtles and their eggs.
Asia has depleted its own turtle species and has been turning to the United States for its supply, said Jeff Miller, Conservation Advocate, Center for Biological Diversity.
The demand for turtle meat for food and medicine is voraciously consuming more than 2 million wild-caught freshwater turtles a year, Miller said.
Turtle hunters have been moving from state to state as regulations are passed to curtail turtle hunting. Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Texas, South Carolina and Oklahoma have stepped up regulations to protect turtle species, while Kentucky has started monitoring its populations, he said.
With surrounding states closing the door, Alabama has seen a surge in turtle harvesting, said Mark Sasser, Non-game Wildlife Coordinator, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
In response, Alabama has passed one of the toughest commercial harvesting bans on wild turtles and their eggs on both public and private lands, which goes into effect on Sunday, Sasser said. All turtle harvesting permits were canceled in the state.
"Turtles are important to our ecosystem and we want to protect them," Sasser said.
Slow to reproduce, wild turtles cannot sustain commercial harvesting, according to Thane Wibbels, a biology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The average female lays 20 eggs a season, and that number will generally only produce one or two adults, according to Wibbels. There are many predators and a hatchling takes as long as five years to reach sexual maturity.
"It is very easy to deplete a turtle population," said Wibbels, who studies the diamondback terrapin, once a popular dish in the eastern U.S., even appearing on President Richard Nixon's dinner table at the White House.
Sasser said Alabama has one of the most diverse turtle populations, with 25 species, two of which are federally protected and seven of which are state-protected.
The ban does not extend to turtle farmers, who either raise hatchlings for the pet market or for food.
Private landowners can control their turtle populations but they cannot sell them.
"No one can claim to be selling turtles off of granddaddy's farm," said Sasser.
Turtles fetch hefty prices on the commercial market, either as food or exotic pets. Food turtles can bring $65 apiece and exotic black knob sawback turtles could sell for as much as $150 for pet collectors.
"It can't wag its tail at you, but people want turtles for pets," said Sasser.
Poachers caught selling turtles in Alabama face a maximum $500 fine and a year in jail. With thousands in profits at stake, Sasser believes many will take the risk.
(Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Sandra Maler)