Shell shock: Turtle trapping faces a ban

North Carolina and other southern states may curtail the practice following a surge in exports to China.

L.W. Nixon never tasted one or cleaned one, but the wiry waterman, like most country boys worth their salt, caught a few Florida cooters when he was growing up on the Chowan River.

As Mr. Nixon, now in his early 20s and married, boats across the river in the calm after a hailstorm, he is putting the summertime pursuit of many a child to good use: He's supplementing his family's income by tipping his nine traps for turtles. As the boat slides in among the cypress trees, the traps twitter in the water, and shells clank.

Though he's fished the river for as long as he can remember, Nixon never really thought he could profit by catching the tough turtles that share the water with gar, carp, rock bass, and channel catfish. But then three years ago, turtle buyers came knocking, and Nixon started cutting out in the mornings, chasing cooters.

"I always thought they'd taste kind of swampy myself," he says.

A $5 permit is all a fisherman needs to pull as many as he can out of the river mud. But Nixon may soon have to stop. Last year, 23,000 turtles were taken out of the copper-colored waters of North Carolina, up from just a few thousand in 1999. The sudden increase in turtle trapping has led the state to consider a moratorium on fishing of the plentiful creature.

To fishermen, the move shuts down a lucrative market. But biologists say it's necessary in order to protect a slow, deliberate animal with a shell that shields it against just about everything but man.

"We've seen a great increase in the commercial exploitation of these wild turtles in the last several years," says Brad Gunn, an assistant chief at the North Carolina Division of Wildlife Management. "This law allows us to take action before they're all gone."

In fact, as the Chinese have almost cleaned out their native turtles, they're now looking to the most prolific turtle haunt in the world: The American South, where swamps, streams, and warm rivers are inundated with dozens of turtle species, including the alligator snapping turtle as well as lots of gentle baskers, sliders, and softshells.

Already, over 7 million turtles are exported to China each year. After they arrive alive, medicine men grind the shells into virility powders and proud cooks serve the meat like lobster.

"People have always trapped turtles, so why would things change now?" says Whit Gibbons, a researcher with the Savannah River Ecology Lab in Aiken, S.C. "The major reason is that the Chinese are eliminating their turtles, which makes our turtles more valuable."

As a result, Alabama and Mississippi, where turtle trapping has been the heaviest, have limited the practice severely, and South Carolina is formulating its own moratorium.

At present, common sliders are hardly in danger in North Carolina: They can be seen on just about every log on sunny mornings.

Still, lawmakers felt an innate need to protect a population that many experts say is not sustainable under heavy pressure. Turtles, of course, are notoriously slow - in everything they do. Many species lay only a few eggs per clutch, and some take a dozen years to reach maturity, making them more vulnerable than most game animals.

"Everybody that ever had anything to do with the woods as a kid had a box turtle, so there's a lot of identification with these animals," says Mr. Gunn.

Sugary sentiments mean little to the square-jawed watermen of the Chowan. They say they know when to stop fishing a resource. It's not now. "I saw 150 of them on logs floating up my creek this morning," says Mike Waterfield, delivering a catch of yellow perch to the local packing plant with his son, Vaughney.

With other states closing down their waters, trappers come to "virgin" states like North Carolina, often making camp in the backs of their trucks. Sammy Strange, a turtle exporter out of Jonesville, La., has stopped answering calls from North Carolina because he can't buy as many turtles as people are selling.

But many of these new turtle trappers are North Carolina watermen, looking for ways to keep fishing. "There's no money around. We develop a market and they take it away," says Joey Nixon, L.W.'s cousin and the manager of Murray Nixon Fisheries in Rocky Hock, N.C.

The moratorium is not in effect yet, and Nixon and fellow trapper Jose Cruz slip on white oilskins and down a cola as a turtling trip gets going shortly after dawn.

A short ride across the river takes the pair up into ancient cypress swamps. Water moccasins slither beside the boat. A scratchy country tune twangs from a radio as they pole up to the traps.

Learning the trade himself, Nixon set the modified catfish traps the night before, using saplings as anchors and empty freon tanks for floats - providing enough buoyancy to push a section of the trap out of the water so the reptiles don't drown.

Heaved into the boat, the turtles tumble out of the trap. It's a decent day: 78 cooters and 17 snappers in the hold, one weighing nearly 30 pounds. Nixon says he's still catching as many turtles as he was three years ago and can't see any mounting shortage and he bemoans the protection of turtles.

"There's no law protecting the man on the water," he says.

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