TRAPPING TURTLES IN THE U.S.
By: Chris A. Berson (Trapper Dan)
Turtle trapping in the United States is a rapidly changing industry. Demand in China has been growing for years as they are depleting their natural stock. Turtle trappers in the the U.S. have been trying to fill China’s needs and the result has been rising prices and profits for wild caught turtles. There has been a cost to this increase in exports, rapidly changing laws to slow down turtle trapping to protect our nation’s stock. While the laws are designed to curb large scale operations, it has affected those who are not in the export market or for those who wish to enter the market. I recently had a chance to talk with two turtle trappers and discuss their practices and how laws affect the decisions they make, while they continue their family traditions.
There are many types of traps available to trap turtles, but both trappers I talked to use the same style of trap, the hoop trap. The trap has hoop ribbing that supports a mesh cage that is placed in the water. There is an opening on one end of the trap that opens wider as the turtle enters and relaxes after the tutrtle enters the trap, preventing its escape. The turtle enters the trap to reach a piece of bait that is mounted or hung on the opposite end from the opening. Both trappers use similiar baits such as beaver, fish and other meats they are able to catch. Neither of the trappers buy any baits for their turtle traps. Beyond the similiarities in type of bait and traps, the similiarities diverge, due to state laws and goals.
Trapper Woody, owner of Trapper Woody’s Snapping Turtles, has been trapping turtles since 1977. He began catching turtles in 1972 following Hurricane Agnes and the flooding that followed. His father had taken him and his brothers to pull turtles out of the mud using a hook tool after the storm. They loaded a ’68 Ford truck with 25-30 turtles that day. Five years later he was trapping them. Today, over 40 years later, he runs a commercial turtle business in Pennsylvania trapping and selling snapping turtles.
While Trapper Woody does use hoop traps, primarily in ponds and streams, he also uses another method that is available in his state, the bank line. These are baited hooks that are anchored to the bank. Lately, Trapper Woody has been using groundhogs, as well as other meats he has trapped during fur seasons, and from his ADC work, as bait on his bank lines and traps. The one thing he says that he has noticed does not work well is a fox in heat. After the turtles are caught, he prepares them for sale, which is legal in his state. He is able to do live sales, and cleaned meat sales.
Some of his customers have been local restaraunts, as well as customers who reside out of state. Laws affect every decision he makes concerning his sales. While he does have a Commercial License which allows him to sell his turtles in his state, selling out of state to other states gets tricky. He must read the laws of the customer’s state to determine if the sale would be legal. Starting with 2014, Trapper Woody will be expanding in to the export market.
Another turtle trapper located in Michigan operates on a different set of laws. Scott Ursiny learned to trap turtles from his Grandmother when he was twelve years old. He was taught the basics by setting up traps in his yard. Today, he traps river back flows, preferably near lily pads, for snapping turtles for his own personal consumption and to help others who have a turtle infestation in their ponds.
Scott, who holds a non-commercial license, has to work under a five trap limit, unlike Trapper Woody who can have an unlimited amount. Further laws limit him to three turtles a day or six per boat. Even if Scott had a commercial license he would be limited to ten a day. He must also watch the size of the turtles he catches. Trapper Woody can sell juvenile turtles for as much as $40 each in the live market, while Scott must throw back any turtles under thirteen inches. Scott is also not allowed to sell any part of his turtles, including the shells. Scott does give away some of the meat and shells though. This difference in laws is common from state to state as each state determines what is best.
When Scott traps a turtle and gets it home, he begins to clean it. After dispatching the turtle, he places it upside down and separates the edges of the upper and lower shell. His work begins with the front legs and after the meat is harvested, it goes straight to the freezer. For Scott it is about honoring his family’s traditions and the good food. He often brings turtle dishes to banquets and dinner parties.
Trappers in other states have a variety of laws they must contend with. Some will limit harvest amounts, trap types and some have even issued moratoriums on turtle trapping altogether. The goals of all the laws are designed to the protect the state’s resources, just as any other trapping law in a state does. They are protecting a natural resource, so we too, do not go the way of China.
Regardless of the laws in the various states, turtle trappers will find ways to reach their personal goals within the law, be it commercial or personal. Laws meant to sustain our state’s natural stock of turtles does make it harder on turtle trappers, but those who love the craft will continue in their family traditions. As long as the meat is tasty and state laws allow it, turtles will be trapped, sold, and consumed.