According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Popularity of Turtle Soup Could Lead to the Decline of the Alligator Snapping Turtle

The agency recently proposed protecting the unique reptile under the Endangered Species Act. 

The alligator snapping turtle could soon become a threatened species, and the Southern tradition of serving turtle soup could be to blame.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed adding the alligator snapping turtle to the list of threatened species, citing a predicted 95% decline in their population over the next 50 years and possible extinction in as few as 30 years.

alligator snapping turtle
Getty Images / Suzanna Ruby

According to a release from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the commercial harvest of alligator snapping turtles reached its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, the meat was used for commercial turtle soup products and sold in bulk for public consumption. In addition, many restaurants purchased meat from Southern trappers for use in turtle soup.

In the 1970s, the demand for turtle meat was so high that three to four tons of alligator snapping turtles were harvested from the Flint River in Georgia per day.

Though the practice has been fully illegal since 2012 when Alabama became the last state to outlaw commercial harvesting, the long-term effects of the popular food trend are still wreaking havoc on the species today.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered species, is working to counteract some of those effects.

"Alligator turtles are some of the fiercest, wildest creatures in the Southeast, but overexploitation and habitat destruction have put their lives on the line," Elise Bennet, an attorney for the center, said in a release. "These freshwater giants will get a real shot at survival and recovery with the help of the Endangered Species Act and its lifesaving protections."

Alligator snapping turtles originated in Kansas and Indiana but are now primarily found in the Southern states of Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. It's illegal to hunt them recreationally in all but two states—Louisiana where fishers are allowed one per day and Mississippi where they're restricted to one per year. If the turtles are added to the threatened species list, it will no longer be legal to catch them in any state.

The largest freshwater turtle in North America, alligator snapping turtles are known for their spikey shells and ability to catch prey using a tongue appendage that creates a wormlike lure. Though they can live up to 80 years and weigh up to 250 pounds, the species' future is severely limited by the relatively small number of eggs that females lay each year. Compared to sea turtles which lay an average of 110 eggs per nest, alligator snapping turtles lay only around 27.

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