Shell Game: US Traffickers Smuggle Turtles to China and Beyond to Feed Demand as Food and Pets

September 5, 2018 Updated: September 5, 2018

STONE HARBOR, N.J.—A trial begins next week for a man charged with trafficking thousands of protected turtles captured in New Jersey—an unlikely hotbed of wildlife poaching that supplies China with a culinary delicacy that is hard to find in Asia.

David Sommers, 64, of Levittown, Pennsylvania is accused of plucking some 3,500 diamondback terrapins and their eggs from the coastal marshes of southern New Jersey and selling them in violation of the Lacey Act, a federal statute that prohibits the trafficking of wildlife captured or killed in jurisdictions where it is illegal.

Asia, where native populations of turtles have been depleted, is fueling a surge in turtle poaching across the United States.

“Rare species are being stolen from our own backyard for the illegal trade,” said Rachel Kramer, manager at World Wildlife Fund.

Capturing or killing many of the species in highest demand is illegal in states where they range.

Many Asian consumers love the taste of turtle meat. But turtles with dramatic-looking shells become pets.

Poaching devastates wild turtle populations because the reptiles are slow to mature to reproductive age, said biologist Brian Williamson of The Wetlands Institute in New Jersey.

Most diamondback terrapins, a particularly prized species, must survive to age 8 before they can lay eggs, which means evading predators including raccoons, skunks, seagulls, and humans.

“All kinds of animals—including humans—love to eat them. They’re the potato chip of the salt marsh,” Williamson said.

Among the U.S. species in high demand are the spotted turtle, a tiny animal with yellow dots on its shell that sells on the black market in Asia for up to $2,000 each, said Ed Grace, head of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Smugglers also get top dollar for the alligator snapping turtle, an imposing species from the U.S. southeast with spikes on its shell that resemble a dragon, said Collette Adkins, an attorney with the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity.

Diamondback terrapins are prized as pets for their unique markings, which are different for each turtle.

Selling for up to $3,000 each, the creatures are considered particularly healthy to eat because turtles symbolize longevity in some Asian cultures, said Williamson. A diamondback can live more than 30 years.

The institute, built on a marsh about 12 miles north of Cape May, New Jersey, helps return confiscated turtles to the wild, including the 3,500 reptiles that Sommers is accused of snatching.

Sommers, who goes on trial in Philadelphia next week, is also charged with smuggling turtles to Canada in 2014 in a package falsely labeled as a book.

Poaching is a growing problem and Sommers’ case is not an isolated incident.

Two China Eastern Airlines flight attendants were fined in July in federal court in California for attempting to smuggle dozens of spotted turtles in their luggage from Los Angeles to China.

Five men were indicted in March for trafficking diamondback terrapins and spotted turtles captured in North Carolina waters. They hid the turtles in packages of noodles and candy being shipped to Hong Kong.

The full extent of the underground turtle trade is unknown. But wildlife advocates say buyers in Hong Kong and China accounted for 55 percent of legal exports of U.S. live, wild turtles from 2011 to 2015, according to recent data. That trade was worth $31 million.

Legal exports have declined in recent years as states tighten protections. In August, Texas became the latest to ban commercial turtle hunts, with only six states still allowing unlimited turtle trapping.

By Barbara Goldberg