Once Targeted for Turtle Soup, Alligator Snapping Turtles Are Now Threatened Species: Feds

The alligator snapping turtle could become a threatened species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it might be because of a soup.

The total number of turtles belonging to species, which are notable for their spikey shells and their wormy lure, is decreasing rapidly. The agency said that the looming presence of turtle soup has resulted in "decades and decades of exploitation," according to an attorney representing the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Alligator snappers are some of the fiercest, wildest creatures in the Southeast," said attorney Elise Bennett in a news release by the Center, "but overexploitation and habitat destruction have put their lives on the line."

Around 360,000 alligator snapping turtles live in 12 states. However, those numbers could drop to 5 percent of that without the proper protections. This drop is recorded in a Federal Register notice sent by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Ten of these states have banned the capture of alligator snapping turtles; the agency said that Louisana allows fishers to capture one per day, while Mississippi permits one capture per year. These limits could be retracted if their threatened status is confirmed.

"Many restaurants served turtle soup and purchased large quantities of alligator snapping turtles from trappers in the southeastern States," the Fish and Wildlife Service statement said. "In the 1970s, the demand for turtle meat was so high that as much as three to four tons of alligator snapping turtles were harvested from the Flint River in Georgia per day."

None of the 12 states in which the turtles inhabit have commented on the notice. The Federal Registrar notice is scheduled to be presented on November 9.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Operation Jungle Book
Alligator snapping turtles could receive protection about being hunted for decades for turtle soup. An Alligator Snapping Turtle that was intercepted when an attempt was made to smuggle it from the U.S. is displayed during an Operation Jungle Book media event at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Torrance, California on October 20, 2017. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

Alligator snapping turtles can live 80 years, with males known to weigh up to 249 pounds (113 kilograms) with shells up to 29 inches (74 centimeters) long. Their jaws are strong enough to snap bone.

They once were found in Kansas and Indiana, but now live in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

"The range has contracted in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and possibly in Oklahoma," it noted.

Those states all are along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The service proposed threatened status in April for the related Suwannee alligator snapping turtle, found in the Suwannee River basin in Georgia and Florida.

"Commercial harvests for turtle soup products peaked in the late 1960s and 1970s," the Fish and Wildlife Service notice stated.

The animals are long-lived but grow slowly, aren't sexually mature until they're 11 to 21 years old and take an average of 31 years to successfully reproduce, the agency said. They also don't lay large numbers of eggs, and many other animals eat eggs and young turtles, so the indiscriminate capture had long-lasting effects.

Alligator snapping turtles average 27 eggs per nest with one clutch per year, while sea turtles average 110 and lay multiple nests each season.

Poaching remains a problem, the notice said, noting that three men were convicted in 2017 of collecting 60 large alligator snapping turtles in one year in Texas and taking them across state lines.

Adult turtles can swallow fish hooks or drown after being hooked on a variety of lines or being caught in nets.

Alligator Snapping Turtle Mouth
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said November 8 that it is proposing threatened status for alligator snapping turtles, huge, spike-shelled reptiles that lurk at the bottom of bayous and lakes, luring prey to their mouths by extending a wormy-looking lure. A male alligator snapping turtle is held after being trapped by the Turtle Survival Alliance-North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, November 24, 2018, as part of the process of tagging turtles. Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via AP, File