Stop hunting Snapping Turtles in Ontario
Snapping Turtle hatchling -Kate Harries photo
The following is AWARE Simcoe’s submission opposing the Ontario government’s continuation of the Snapping Turtle hunt as proposed in EBR #012 9170. If you agree, send in your own comment by Monday January 30, 2017
-A perceived abundance of Snapping Turtles in some parts of Ontario may mask an aging population with severely diminished recruitment
-Bio-accumulation of toxins makes an unknown proportion of Snapping Turtles unfit for human consumption
-One of the reasons Snapping Turtles are being hunted is to satisfy overseas demand for food, medicine, pets and trinkets
The hunt has no useful purpose. It is unethical and unsustainable.
The natural life span of Canada’s largest freshwater turtle, a species that evolved 40 million years ago, is 70 to 100 years or more. Snapping Turtles, presently listed as “of special concern” in both provincial and federal endangered species legislation, do not reach sexual maturity until they are 15 to 20 years old. The turtles we see in our lakes and wetlands may have hatched and started breeding before World War II.
The important question now is, how many of them are young adults, born in the last 20 or 30 years? And that’s a question that has not been well studied. We just don’t have the answers we need. We don’t know the age of the creatures we are counting. But some experts fear there has been little recruitment in recent decades and that as the centenarians die off, the Snapping Turtle population will crash, because there are no cohorts to replace them.
Why would recruitment be lower now than ever before?
– Adult Snapping Turtles face few predators other than humans and spend most of their lives in relative security underwater. Losses there come from boat mortality, dredging, and ingestion of fishing hooks, either accidentally from consuming dead fish or intentionally targeted by anglers.
– Thanks to recent human alterations of the landscape, the adults face one period of extreme peril every year: nesting time. As wetlands and other suitable habitat disappear, females must leave their home territory to find nesting sites. This often means crossing roads where they are hit by vehicles. Turtle mortality is high in June and July.
– Snapping Turtles are most vulnerable to predation in the egg and hatchling stages.
– The Snapping Turtle lays an average of 20-40 eggs in a nest – but most nests become a rich protein resource for many species of mammals. Raccoons can often be observed waiting for female turtle to finish laying so they can excavate the nest as soon as she leaves. Minks, foxes and skunks are other predators who do a thorough job of consuming every last egg.
– Hatchlings are also very vulnerable, both as they make their first trip from nest to water, and in the water where they are eaten by predators like herons, bullfrogs and large-mouth bass.
– It is estimated that a female snapping turtle has to lay about 1,400 eggs during her lifetime in order for one of her offspring to survive to adulthood. (1) Due to low rate of reproduction, any increase in the number of adult deaths, such as those due to hunting or road mortality, will cause populations to decline. Even a 10% increase in adult mortality in a snapping turtle population would result in the disappearance of half of that population in less than 20 years. (2)
– The decline in natural nesting sites means females are often lured long distances to human-created locations: road and path shoulders, dykes, even piles of gravel. In the latter case, the gravel gets moved and the nest is lost. In the former two, the peril is that the eggs are easily accessible to predators.
– As the road network tightens and wilderness areas are opened up for recreation, we set a trap for female turtles by attracting them to sites that are exposed and by eliminating places of protection and concealment.
– Current land management practices, along with the elimination or persecution of high-level predators that would control smaller mammals, have caused a population explosion among those that consume turtle eggs (“human-subsidized predators). This is a peril that is exponentially greater than it was 30 years ago.
Tiny Marsh study
In 2014, under the supervision of naturalist and environmental consultant Robert Bowles, a study of turtles at Tiny Marsh Provincial Wildlife Area in Simcoe County was undertaken. Volunteers found a total of 439 predated nests containing the shells of close to 5,000 eggs. Protective cages were placed over any sites where female turtles were observed laying eggs – a total of 27 such cages, most on Snapping Turtle nests, but some on those of Midland Painted Turtles.
In his report to the MTM Conservation Association, Bowles observed:
“Despite Snapping Turtles being listed as ‘Special Concern’, one step below ‘Threatened’ in Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, they are present in extremely large numbers at Tiny Marsh… This was both encouraging and troublesome.
“It is encouraging that there are so many Snapping Turtles present at the Marsh that have successfully matured beyond their juvenile stage of vulnerability, especially considering it takes Snapping Turtle’s approximately 15-17 years to reach maturity.
“However, the vast number of predated Snapping Turtle nests is equally troublesome, indicating a potentially significant age gap in the population which could lead to a precipitous decline if subsequent generations are not present to replenish the population as older generations of Snapping Turtles die out. Female Snapping Turtles can live to well over 100 years old but if there are not as many younger females making it to reproduction age it will decrease the overall turtle populations in the Marsh.
“Another concern is that several young hatchlings were found dead on the tracks along the dyke roads. Many were completely dehydrated having been out in the full sunlight for several days and not being able to find a path to water due to a heavy barrier of vegetative grasses mainly the invasive Common Reed Grass. Some had also been run over by vehicles which raises the concern of having vehicles on the dyke system for recreational activities during turtle nesting and hatching periods.”
Bowles added: “It is the view of the author that due to the large number of existing threats to turtle populations, the continued harvesting of Snapping Turtles is not a sustainable practice.”
The intense nest predation observed at Tiny Marsh often occurs in or near parks and other human-impacted natural areas. To take three examples: 100% of roadside turtle nests were depredated at Point Pelee National Park (Browne 2003); 99% of 697 Snapping Turtle nests were depredated in 2000 and 100% of 784 nests were depredated in 2001 at Rondeau Provincial Park (Gillingwater 2001);100% of Snapping Turtle nests were depredated along the Simcoe Rail Trail in 2006 (Bowles et al. 2007).
What is the point of the Snapping Turtle hunt?
Some hunter groups consider Snapping Turtles a threat to game fish and waterfowl populations. But scientific research indicates that these turtles are largely herbivorous (COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentine) in Canada) and in natural situations, have no significant impact on fish or waterfowl populations.
In examining any benefit from the continuation of this hunt, one must take into account the question of whether Snapping Turtles are safe for human consumption. Their long lifespan means that they bio-accumulate many toxins from their increasingly polluted environment. In a 2011 study (The Road to Extinction, A Call to End the Turtle Hunt (2012) – Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre, the David Suzuki Foundation and Ontario Nature), the flesh of 14 Snapping Turtles killed by vehicles was analyzed for two harmful chemicals: polychlorinated biphenols and mercury. Levels of PCBs that would be considered unsafe for any woman of childbearing age or any child under the age of 15 were found in nine of 12 turtles (75%). Three turtles (25%) had PCB levels so high that they were not safe for anyone to consume. Mercury was found in all 14 turtles, although at levels below those recommended for consumption. (3)
Another study, reported in 2000 in Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, found very high levels of organochlorine pesticides, PCBs, dibenzodioxin, and furans in Snapping Turtle eggs in Akwesasne, Mohawk Territory, in Ontario. The eggs were taken downstream of PCB-contaminated landfill sites: Maximum concentrations of total PCBs in Snapping Turtle clutches were “extremely high,” “among the highest recorded in any tissue of a free-ranging animal.”
There are no provincial guidelines for the consumption of turtles.
Unfortunately, the dinner table is not the only destination for a trapped Snapping Turtle. As is detailed in the federal government’s Species at Risk Public Registry, “a new, rapidly increasing and far more serious threat is the illegal wildlife trade. There is a highly organized trade in turtles for food, medicine, pets and trinkets. Systematic trapping of all turtle species, including Snapping Turtles, is increasing to meet overseas demand, particularly from China.”
Six broad strategies are recommended in the proposed Management Plan for the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in Canada – 2016. These are the recommendations that apply on the ground: reduce the risk of mortality, injury and harvesting; conserve, manage and restore habitat.
There is no indication that these recommendations have been considered within the context of the unique and cumulative threats faced by Snapping Turtles in the measures proposed in EBR #012-9170. There is no specific mention of Snapping Turtles in Ontario’s draft Small Game and Furbearer Management Framework, which is supposed to guide this hunt.
To allow continuation of the hunt, given the serious threat to the sustainability of Snapping Turtle populations that has been shown to arise from any loss of adults, is unethical. The hunt has no useful purpose. It is time to end the persecution of this magnificent and endangered creature.
Notes (1) Brooks, R.J., Brown, G.P., and Galbraith, D.A. 1991. Effects of a sudden increase in natural mortality of adults on a population of the common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Canadian Journal of Zoology 69: 1314–20. (2) Congdon, J.D., Dunham, A.E., and van Lobel Sels, R.C. 1994. Demographics of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina): implications for conservation and management of long-lived organisms. American Zoology 34(3): 397–408.