They say you can get seven different kinds of meat from butchering a turtle. Depending on what part of the turtle you’re chewing on, the taste may be reminiscent of pork, or chicken, or veal, or fish, or whatever … you get the picture. Perhaps this variability can partly explain why turtle has been such a popular menu item throughout the history of the United States. At least, it used to be. Not so long ago you could find Campbell’s turtle soup sitting alongside minestrone and tomato in grocery stores throughout the country. So what happened? How and why did an American staple virtually vanish?
It’s a question Saveur magazine recently tried to tackle. Now, if you ask me or anyone else who knows much about turtles and turtle conservation, the answer is quite simple: There are not enough turtles left to eat. For example, a picture of a few chefs hovering over the carcass of a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) leads off the Saveur article. Today green sea turtles, like all other species of sea turtles, are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. If you ate one in the United States, you would be committing a felony.
Turtles are one of the most imperiled groups of animals on the planet. Habitat loss is probably their biggest threat; when a wetland is drained, a field paved over, or a nesting beach overrun with condominiums, there is simply no space left for turtles. But harvesting too many for food has played a key role in driving down turtle populations in this country and across the world. In fact, the market for turtle soup was so intensive in the United States that many of our turtle populations are still recovering from trapping and harvesting that occurred decades ago. Ironically, the Saveur article exploring the loss of turtle soup did not even consider that the meal’s popularity played an important role in its own vanishing act. As turtles disappeared, so did turtle soup.
The Saveur article unwittingly demonstrates why so many species have become threatened or gone extinct in the past few hundred years. When we have a limited understanding of an animal’s natural history and care only about its meat or feathers or shells, we may overlook how our actions could be killing them off for good.
Turtle populations have an interesting survival strategy. Most young turtles and eggs are eaten by predators like raccoons, herons, and big fish. This wasn’t historically a problem, because turtles that do survive to adulthood typically live for many, many years. They produce so many eggs over their lifetime that chances are good at least a few will survive long enough to replace their aging parents. The strategy works quite well as long as we don’t take the adult turtles out of the population—particularly the females—before they’ve had their many years of reproduction. That is why even individual turtles are so important (and why I have been known to go to great lengths to help them).
There are many different species of turtles, and we have different relationships with (and recipes for) each of them. During the Great Depression, gopher tortoises became such an important source of meat for rural Southerners that they earned a new nickname, “Hoover chicken” that honored, so to speak, our president at the time, Herbert Hoover. That species is now federally threatened in Louisiana, Mississippi, and western Alabama, and is under protection everywhere it occurs. Diamondback terrapins, the beautifully patterned turtles inhabiting brackish waters along the East Coast, were harvested so heavily for food that the U.S. government started to get concerned about their vastly depleted populations more than 100 years ago.
Any species could end up in soup or stew, but in this country turtle soup is synonymous with the alligator snapping turtle. Interestingly, you would never know of our long history with alligator snapping turtles from reading the Saveur magazine piece, because it never even mentioned the species. That’s like writing an entire article about cheeseburgers and never mentioning beef … or cows.
Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtle in North America. Formerly considered one species, there are now two or three different kinds of alligator snapping turtle, depending on whom you ask. They are quite impressive: Big old alligator snappers can reach well over 100 pounds. And old is right, these turtles can live past 50 years, if not a century; they don’t even become sexually mature and able to reproduce until after their first decade of life. In the 1960s and 1970s we almost wiped out alligator snapping turtles because so many adults were harvested for soup. One former collector reported that he and his colleagues removed several tons of these animals from one river in Georgia every day during the 1970s and only stopped when they weren’t catching enough anymore to make it worthwhile.
That river is the Flint River, which I lived next to from 2004 to 2007. Despite having lived near excellent alligator snapping turtle habitat, I have seen only a few of these animals in my life. It is hard to imagine the Flint River crawling with literally tons of giant alligator snapping turtles. Maybe someday our streams and rivers will again be chock-full of these beasts, but it won’t be during my lifetime.
Fortunately, alligator snapping turtles are now afforded some protection in every state in which they occur, and at this very moment the federal government is under pressure to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. Even Louisiana, once the hub of the turtle soup industry, outlawed commercial collection of this species in 2004. Given that these animals received protection only recently, it will be a long time before populations rebound to their historic levels, if ever. In some restaurants you can still find traditional turtle soup that contains alligator snapping turtle, but these days the animals come from farms and were not collected from wild populations.
The turtle hunters from the Saveur article were in Virginia, and their quarry was a different kind of snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. This species is still relatively abundant in Virginia, but commercial collection is illegal. Commercial collection of even relatively common turtle species has recently been outlawed throughout much the southeastern United States in response to an increasing demand from Asia. This alarming and increasing demand had started to put an unsustainable strain on our turtle populations. But in some states, depending on the species, you can still take a couple for personal use.
Even if people are allowed to eat a few turtles every once in a while, there is another important reason why we may not want to: It’s not just bad for the turtles; it’s bad for us. Remember how turtles can live for decades? Well, if that turtle is sitting in polluted water, it is going to be absorbing and consuming contaminants for many years. This unfortunate habit has made the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)—the same species that features heavily in the Saveur article—a model organism for studying how pollutants persist in wetlands. For example, despite a ban since 1979 on the manufacture of polychlorinated biphenyls, turtles in some areas still have alarmingly high concentrations of PCBs in their blood and their meat. PCBs can cause a wide range of serious health problems in people. And forget tuna—if you want to avoid mercury, you should cut snapping turtle out of your diet. Patterns of pollutants differ depending on which swamp the turtle has been sitting in for the past 50 years, but I think I’ll pass either way.
Turtle soup in the United States did not fade away simply because our palates changed. Our taste for turtle soup exploded to unsustainable levels and caused the turtles to disappear first. They still haven’t come back.