The state Wildlife Conservation Commission this morning placed a three-year ban on commercial turtle harvesting in Oklahoma.
The move follows pressure from environmental groups who said the state's nonexistent regulation of turtle trapping could drive species toward extinction and endanger public health.
The ban only covers public waters, not private farm ponds. It protects turtles from being caught and sold, but it remains legal to catch turtles for personal use, and as food.
Commissioners unanimously approved the moratorium. They called it a middle-road approach, and said they would consider banning commercial turtle harvests on private lands at a later date.
Very little is known about turtle populations in Oklahoma.
The director of the Wildlife Department's fisheries division, Barry Bolton, told the commission that little is known about turtles in Oklahoma, and that turtle populations could be depleted by commercial trappers.
"We believe that we have insufficient data to determine the impact of this unregulated harvest," he said.
Bolton said the Wildlife Department will put at least $50,000 toward studying turtle populations in the state, with the studies starting as soon as this summer.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups had petitioned the state to enact the ban, saying the harvest puts turtle species at risk and poses a "substantial and eminent" public health threat.
Oklahoma was one of only three states with a virtually unregulated commercial turtle harvest. Turtles are most often caught for their meat, and many of them are exported to markets in Asia.
The petition from the environmental groups said the state's turtle harvest created a public health emergency because many of the state's rivers are contaminated with mercury, which could get into turtles and cause health problems in the people who eat them.
Ron Suttles, a spokesman for the Sierra Club and a former Wildlife Department employee, said the moratorium is a good first step, but that regulations should go further. He urged a ban on commercial trapping on private land as well.
He said "absolutely nothing" is known about hundreds of wildlife species in Oklahoma. Suttles said turtles have very low reproduction rates, so they easily can be put in danger.
Oklahoma is home to a few rare turtles, notably the alligator snapping turtle, which is under government protection.
The state Wildlife Department issues permits to turtle trappers, but the permits allow unlimited harvesting. The trappers self-report the number and type of turtles they catch.
Bolton said the moratorium could hurt people who work as turtle collectors, but noted that no one came to Monday's meeting to speak against the moratorium.