Snapping turtles are easy to recognize. They have a spiky tail like a little stegosaurus, and always fascinated me as a child. So I was troubled to learn that anyone with a fishing license can hunt them in Ontario. The federal government’s proposed new management plan for snapping turtles is an opportunity to finally ban the snapping turtle hunt, but so far it has come up short.
Snapping turtles often get a bad rap because people think they are aggressive. Maybe, like me, you grew up thinking they would bite off your fingers or toes if you got too close. Generally, they don’t bite underwater and only bite on land when threatened.
Snapping turtles are late-bloomers; females don’t reproduce until they’re 17 to 19 years old. And, most of their offspring do not survive. Having reproductive adults around for a long time is crucial to the survival of the species. Even harvesting a few adult turtles can adversely affect a population, making any hunt unsustainable.
Snapping turtle hatchling, Credit: Scott Gillingwater
Hunting snapping turtles is illegal in most provinces where they are found; only Saskatchewan and Ontario continue to allow it.
The snapping turtle hunt in Ontario used to be unregulated. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) recently imposed maximum numbers for hunters (2 turtles per day) and now require hunters to report the number of animals they harvest each year.
But the MNRF can’t track hunters who aren’t reporting. According to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), in 2012, four hunters reported a total harvest of 13 snapping turtles. If so few people are hunting turtles, why have a hunt? It’s possible that few hunters are reporting their harvests. Neither explanation justifies continuing the hunt.
Legal hunting is just one threat the turtle faces that could be easily eliminated. The new management plan says that provincial regulations on harvesting snapping turtles will be evaluated and possibly adjusted, but this is not nearly strong enough protection for a species that is so sensitive to the removal of adult turtles.
The draft for the new management plan is open for public comment until May 29. This is a chance to let the government know that it needs to make a hunting ban explicit and unconditional. Snapping turtles are of special concern – let’s not wait until they are endangered before taking action.