Byline: Tom Charlier The Commercial Appeal
REELFOOT LAKE, Tenn. -- Whether they're snatched up while sunning on a log or caught blundering into an underwater trap, the turtles of Reelfoot Lake often face exotic destinies.
The small ones can end up as pets in places as far as Korea, while medium-size reptiles get shipped to college science laboratories. The big snapping turtles are harvested for one purpose: meat.
Whatever their fates, untold thousands of turtles - including juveniles and even eggs - are harvested each year in a practice that dates back generations on this 25-square-mile lake in Northwest Tennessee.
``If it hadn't been for the turtles at Reelfoot Lake, many, many little kids, and adults, would've gone to bed hungry,'' said Charles `Coot' Scheland, 69, a Reelfoot native who earned a penny apiece for the turtles he gathered as a child.
But a recently completed study commissioned by the state indicates the Reelfoot turtle populations may be on the decline - some of them markedly so - and that harvesting, or turtling, could be a factor.
Cautioning that the findings were limited, the report for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says the ``apparent decline in turtle populations'' warrants a high-priority, in-depth analysis of the lakewide reptile habitat and the harvesting and sale of the creatures.
At the very least, it says, the state should establish a licensing program to manage the populations.
``Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is our opinion that if the state of Tennessee continues to allow a turtle fishery to operate within Reelfoot Lake, then a license to take or commercially move turtles should be considered,'' the report says. ``As valuable renewable natural resources, fisheries need to be monitored and managed.''
The three-year study was conducted by researchers at the Tennessee Aquarium and the Southeast Aquatic Research Institute in Chattanooga and the University of Tennessee at Martin. Their work represents the first scientific look at the condition of turtle populations at Reelfoot.
The study and its findings will be taken up by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission.
The turtle issue is one of many with the potential to roil the deceivingly placid waters of Reelfoot, where the interests of fishermen, farmers, hunters, tourism entrepreneurs and wildlife officials often clash.
Reelfoot, about 110 miles north of Memphis, was formed when upheavals from the monstrous New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 impounded water in the Mississippi River flood plain.
In recent decades, runoff from upland farms has harmed water quality and accelerated the natural processes that cause lakes to fill in. But with its shallow depths and dense tangle of aquatic plants, the lake remains a prime habitat for turtles.
Lake and Obion counties, which encompass Reelfoot, have been largely exempt from state management limits on turtle-harvesting - all sizes and species, except those listed as endangered, threatened or in need of management, can be harvested by legal methods.
In Tennessee's other 93 counties, harvesters can take only three types of turtles - and then only if the reptiles are at least 9 inches long.
In the study, the researchers examined populations of sliders, musk or ``stinkpot'' turtles, painted turtles and other species at two locations on the lake - Upper Blue Basin and Kiwanis Slough.
The researchers point out that, even without harvesting, turtles face enormous threats that produce a ``high natural mortality'' during the early stages of life. Predators such as raccoons raid nests, and hatchlings often are eaten by birds, fish or other turtles.
But unlike other reptiles, turtles can be ``relatively long-lived,'' the study says. Harvesting, which removes reproductive females, can have an especially destabilizing effect on populations, it says.
James E. Deck, a UT-Martin biology professor who took part in the study, said mature females must reproduce yearly for populations to remain robust.
``If there's ongoing, year-after-year harvesting, you take out more and more of the reproductive individuals,'' he said.
The researchers tallied the numbers of turtles of various ages, compiling comparisons by year over the course of the study. All the compilations ``indicated that turtle populations were in various states of decline,'' they wrote.
However, the study stops short of recommending new restrictions on the harvesting.
As the researchers point out, there are no figures available on the numbers of turtles harvested at Reelfoot. Casual reports, however, suggest the catches of adult, juvenile, hatchlings and eggs are heavy.
Most of the small and medium-size turtles fetch anywhere from 50 cents to $2 for the harvester. The meat from large snappers can bring a harvester about 50 cents a pound.
``A lot of it's just kids with a dip-net and a sock,'' said Paul Brown, manager of the state's Reelfoot Wildlife Management Area.
While health concerns prompted a prohibition on the sale of small turtles as pets in the United States, the overseas market, particularly in Asia, is booming, traders say.
``The turtle is an animal that is liked the world over,'' said Marc Morrone, a New York animal exporter.
Other Reelfoot turtles are sold to domestic suppliers that ship them to schools for use in classroom aquariums or to science laboratories in colleges.
Among turtle harvesters, the state study is being greeted with skepticism. Some of them questioned not only the conclusions but the methods used by researchers.
Robert Riddle, 36, who has been harvesting from the lake for more than 20 years, said that from his observations, the scientists used poor methods to catch turtles, which could explain their pessimistic findings.
``They couldn't tell you if there were 10 turtles out there, or 10 million,'' he said, pointing toward the lake.
For his part, Riddle sees no evidence that turtle populations have declined.
Turtles have benefited from the growth of aquatic vegetation, which has closed off portions of the lake to harvests, he said.
``If anything, they've gotten thicker,'' he said.
Milford Morton, 66, who catches perhaps 3,000 turtles at Reelfoot during a good year, said he's seen some very localized declines in turtle numbers on the lake.
``I find at certain areas turtles are not nearly as plentiful as they were even five years ago,'' he said.
But Morton said the declines could be more the result of increased pressure from natural predators and farm chemicals than from harvesting.
In any event, turtles remain abundant on the lake and in nearby areas of Lake and Obion counties, he said, adding that thousands can be seen by boat on a good day.
Still, Morton said he could go along with some restrictions on where turtles can be caught.
``There's certain areas where there should be a haven for turtles.''
To reach reporter Tom Charlier, call 529-2572 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
By Tom Charlier
(Color) Reelfoot Lake harvester Milford Morton displays his catch. He will sell the turtles for use in college laboratories or as pets. (First A1)