Turtling has been a part of human culture since as far back as 5000 B.C., where sea turtles such as the Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) were eaten as delicacies in countries such as China. While consumption and hunting of turtles is less common than it was in the time of our ancestors, this practice is still a part of communities throughout the globe, whether done legally or illegally.
Humans have been interacting with turtles for thousands of years. Turtles (and their eggs) have been used for food, medicines, and decoration for centuries. Turtle soup has been a staple in many tropical cultures. The harvesting of turtle eggs for food is another activity that many tropical cultures have relied upon for protein. The use in several Asian cultures of marine turtle eggs as aphrodisiacs has brought high prices for the robbing of the turtle nests on the beaches. Even today, Hawksbill turtles are prized for their shell that makes fine jewelry, eyeglasses, and other ornaments, while turtle skin as a whole is used to make shoes, belts, and purses.
In Melanesian societies, it was common during funeral ceremonies, or a time referred to as Bood, for locals to partake in a feast of turtle meat and other delicacies. The deceased were sealed into a tomb, and several years later it was tradition to reopen the tomb and to indulge once more on turtle meat. Because turtle meat was relatively rare, hunting the turtle for others during this time was considered to be a display of public generosity. While turtle hunting within this culture is not as common as it was decades ago, locals on Murray Island, Australia, continue to hunt green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) during the turtle mating season. The turtles are pursued by groups of 3-6 hunters, where a leader, around one decade older than the other members of the group, uses a harpoon to kill the 100–150 kg turtle.
Locals in Lowland, Eastern Bolivia consider the turtle species' Podocnemis unifilis and Podocnemis expansa to be highly desirable as a food. The locals who live in this area, which is close to Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, have been expressing a concern over the decreasing numbers of turtles.
Ecological research shows that turtle numbers decline with proximity to human settlements. This can be explained directly due the hunting of turtles, or also indirectly with the Ecology of Fear principle, Predation. Marine turtle products contribute to the population problems among aquatic turtles. Although most countries outlaw this activity now, and protect their marine turtles, there are still poachers.
Species at risk
While there are several turtle species at risk, the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), which made the IUCU endangered animals list in 1996, and the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) which has been experiencing a decline in numbers, are both still being hunted or killed due to human impact. Another turtle species that can be hunted (not commercially) while considered as special concern at the Canadian and Ontarian level is the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentin).
As a byproduct of fishing
Capturing turtles as a byproduct of fishing has been recognized as a severe threat to turtle populations. It has been acknowledged that fishing nets are the most devastating of fishing equipment to turtles, whether turtles are hunted intentionally or not. Other aquatic animals have been known to also unintentionally fall victim to fishing nets such as dolphins and sharks, which in much the same way as turtles become tangled within the net and are hauled aboard with fish.
In Australia it is estimated that 326 turtles from 6 different species, including the Flatback sea turtle (Narator depressa) accounting for 59% of captures, and the hawksbill sea turtle accounting for 5%, were captured between 1989 and 1990.
With a coast line of approximately 30 000 km in length, it is evident that Africa relies greatly on the fishing industry to feed the people and also as a trade product between other countries. It is estimated that currently in Africa, an average of 180 turtles are caught per year using fishing hooks alone. Capture rate of turtles using a standard fishing hook is approximately 16 in 100 000. 1/16 of the captured turtles are leatherback sea turtles, a species of turtle in which population numbers are declining. Conservation Ecologists have estimated that should fishing efforts increase and fishing distribution remain the same, these numberes will increase to 770 turtles per year, threatening risked species of turtle.
Poaching in and around Mexico
In Mexico sea turtles have been used for medicine, food and decoration since the 13th century. While hunting turtles is strictly forbidden in Mexico, approximately 35 000 turtles have been poached per year within the last decade around Baja California Mer. An estimated 65% of captured turtles are thought to be Green sea turtles, while 10% consist of the endangered Loggerhead sea turtle. The most common way poachers capture turtles is using a net designed specifically for turtles, and costs around $660. The majority of the poachers are local fisherman, who earn approximately $78 USD per week. The turtles are sold locally, or reach the international black market where they fetch a profit of $58 USD per turtle.
The maximum punishment in Mexico for the poaching of turtles is 9 years in jail and a fine of $11,000 USD. Poachers told researchers that the most efficient way of avoiding being caught is to either physically avoid patrols by driving away from them, or by paying a bribe.
North American regulations on turtle hunting
Both the American and Canadian governments regulate the consumption, hunting and destruction of turtles and their eggs,
In Canada the only specified type of turtle that is allowed to be hunted is the snapping turtle, which is considered to be a concern under the Endangered Species Act in the year of 2007. However, the hunting of turtles is strictly illegal in Provincial Parks of Canada. To hunt Snapping turtles in Canada, individuals must own a valid sport license or a valid conservation fishing license. Turtles are not allowed to be hunted for commercial uses, and individuals transporting turtle carcasses must carry them in a box or by hand. Only 2 turtles are allowed to be hunted per day, and only 4 turtles can be on one person at any given time.
Turtle hunting in New York State regulates two species of turtles, the Diamondback terrapin and the snapping turtle.
Snapping turtles are allowed to be hunted only through the months of July 15-September 30. A small game hunting license is required to hunt the turtle, and it is mandated that the turtle shell must be 12 inches long, or longer in a straight line. Turtles must be killed with a bow or firearm, and there is a limit of 30 turtles per year. Because of risk of food-borne contaminants, health advisories have been implemented with specific cooking instructions for public health.
Similarly to regulation of snapping turtles, diamondback terrapin turtles are only allowed to be hunted during specific months of the year. The hunting season for Diamondback Terrapin turtles is August 1 - April 30. In order to hunt diamondback terrapin turtles, individuals must possess a hunting license specific to the species of turtle called the Diamondback terrapin license. Shells of the turtle must be between 4 to 7 inches long, and must be released if the shell size is any different. Diamondback Terrapin turtles must be captured by dip nets, seine nets, by hand or with a trap that must be checked on a daily basis.
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