Poachers harvest a slow-moving delicacy on the Anacostia River.
Last July, Officer Dennis Hance of the D.C. Harbor Patrol stopped two men in a low, open boat near the Anacostia Naval Air Station. It was about lunch time on a clear, sunny day. About 22 feet long, the boat was about the size of Hance’s own police boat, white, with Maryland plates. The men’s ruddy faces peered out from under battered baseball caps. They didn’t make much of a fuss.
Neither did Hance. After all, he was used to stopping fishers on the water for fishing without a license or using illegal equipment. When they are out of order, he cites them and throws their catch back into the river.
But there was nothing typical about what he found flailing around inside two black plastic bins in the center of the boat: several dozen snapping and painted turtles, some with shells as large as dinner plates.
The men operating the boat were licensed commercial fishermen in Maryland, where it’s legal to harvest snapping turtles. But commercial fishing of any kind is illegal in the District.
As soon as he saw the turtles, Hance called John Sieman, chief of the Fisheries Research branch of D.C.’s Department of Health. Sieman had earlier spotted the two men on the Anacostia River while he was conducting a routine survey of fish species.
“They said they knew they couldn’t fish and that they were just going through the District on their way to Maryland,” Sieman recalls. “But they had an awful lot of turtles. It sounded fishy, so to speak.”
So Sieman called Hance and then went about his own business, sailing up to Lake Kingman, by RFK Stadium. There he found two turtle traps. He’d already left the lake when Hance called him downriver to identify the fishermen. He says he was “more or less positive” that the two men had been using them.
“In the past, I’ve found eel traps and other fish traps, suspended by floats, but this was the first time I have come across turtle traps,” Sieman says.
The new, cleaner Anacostia—as well as a booming global market in turtle meat—might change the situation. As turtle prices rise and the river’s reputation as a municipal cesspool fades, Hance and his 20 colleagues on the Harbor Patrol could well be adding turtle poachers to the 250 to 300 commercial fishermen they usually catch trying to make off illegally with rockfish or striped bass each year.
Depending on whether the turtles in question are endangered and on how many you’ve caught, poaching can be a serious crime. In May 1998, the Florida Marine Patrol arrested Alvin G. Keel of West Palm Beach and charged him with possession of marine turtle eggs, molesting a marine turtle, and resisting arrest without violence. (The turtle-molesting charge isn’t as salacious as it sounds: It stemmed from Keel’s attempt to move the turtles to get to eggs in nests.)
Keel was prosecuted under the Lacey Act, which makes it a federal offense punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000 to catch fish or wildlife in violation of a state law, then transport the catch across state lines. Those who run afoul of the Act also risk losing their boats and fishing equipment. In 1999, U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley sentenced Keel to five years in prison and three years’ probation.
But without hard-and-fast evidence that the traps at Lake Kingman belonged to the two Marylanders, Hance couldn’t throw them in the same cell as Keel. “There’s a lot of knowing out here, but proving is harder,” Hance says. His only recourse was to cite the two men under District law for illegal possession of reptiles and fine them $100 for each turtle—a fairly hefty penalty when you consider that the pair had at least 45 turtles on them when they were pulled over. Hance had the two men dump the reptiles back into the water. The turtles went on their way, and so did the two fishermen.
A few weeks later, the culprits failed to pay the fine and received a summons to appear in court. “We are actively investigating the case,” says Acting Corporation Counsel Robert Rigsby.
But even if the turtle-nabbers pay up, fines may not be enough to keep them from coming back. “A hundred dollars isn’t much if they don’t end up forfeiting their equipment,” Sieman says. “If you can get a hundred dollars a turtle on the black market, if you go twice and get caught once, you still make out.”
Painted turtles are sold as pets for $12 a pop. The snappers who get caught alongside them, however, are the real moneymakers. No one will say for sure how much snapping turtles fetch on the black market. But everyone agrees on their destination: the soup pot.
It’s quite a trip from the Anacostia to your dinner table—whether that table’s in Shanghai or Shirlington. The most humane way of dressing a snapper is as follows: Hold a stick out in front of it. The turtle will then bite on the stick and not let go. Then, using the stick, pull the head out as far as you can and chop the head off with a sharp knife. Be careful to cut as close to the head as possible: According to a handy guide to turtle dressing offered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the neck meat makes the best eating. And when you’re done with the decapitation, hang the turtle carcass by its tail for several hours to let the blood drain out. (Let’s see Martha Stewart handle that one.)
After draining the turtle, chop off its claws. Ohio’s book warns that “even with its head off a turtle has strong reflexes, and sharp claws could inflect [sic] serious cuts.” Then place the turtle in a pot of boiling water and use a stiff-handled brush to scrub fiercely. When you’re done, take it out of the pot, turn it on its back, and, with a knife, separate the body from the top shell. Skin the neck and legs.
One online recipe assures readers that this procedure is easier than killing, plucking, and dressing a chicken. Unfortunately, Frank Purdue’s minions won’t do it for you.
It probably goes without saying that after all this preparation, retrieving the meat is no simple matter, either. “I remember picking the meat out from the toes,” recalls Joe Rezac, a chef who’s cooked up turtle on the Eastern Shore. But once the white turtle meat and orange turtle fat are in a pot with some chicken broth, parsley, and lemon, you have turtle soup.
The market for turtle meat has never been better. Louisiana Foods, a Houston specialty butcher, will send you turtle meat through the mail for $9.95 a pound, according to the company’s Web site. In New Orleans, turtles are served up in soups, stews, and fricassees. Commercial turtle harvesting is an industry in Louisiana, but the demand for turtle meat means turtles are also imported from other states. In Philly, Bookbinders, the city’s famous seafood house, proudly serves up Philadelphia Snapper Soup every day for $4.95 a bowl.
But in the District, few restaurants offer turtle on the menu. Market Inn, in Southwest, serves some every other day. A bowl will cost you $6.95. “It’s the least profitable soup we sell,” says Michael Kipp, a restaurant manager. They inn gets its turtle frozen and processed from Metropolitan Poultry & Seafood, for $11 a pound.
Turtle soup is a little more common on the Eastern Shore, home of the terrapin—a brackish water turtle that serves as the University of Maryland mascot. Or, of course, you can trap ’em yourself. On a sunny day, along the shores of local rivers including the Anacostia, they’re as common as squirrels.
Turtles are popular food in prosperous times. The last time people devoured turtle meat in mass quantities lasted roughly from the Gilded Age through the Roaring ’20s. The Eastern Shore town of Crisfield, Md., is today famous for its crabs and oysters. But back in those days, it was home to a terrapin-harvesting industry. Crisfield seafood magnate Albert Lavallette even cornered the market on terrapins, jacking up prices and selling them all across the country.
The bottom fell out of the turtle market in the ’30s—in part because of overharvesting, and in part because of the lingering impact of Prohibition. (Turtle soup is not complete without sherry.) After a half-century of being blissfully ignored by Americans, turtles bounced back; the snapping and painted variety are not in danger of becoming extinct any time soon. In fact, they are so plentiful that most state and local natural resources departments, including the District’s, do not keep track of their populations. In many states, it’s open season on turtles year-round.
But nothing strikes fear in the hearts of turtle conservationists more than the nefarious turtle markets of the Far East. “All the turtles have been sucked out of Indochina. There are very few species left. Our fear is things are starting to happen here,” frets Gregory Pokrywka, a founder of the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society. Many conservationists trace the recent surge in demand for turtle meat to the early 1990s, when the Chinese could more easily convert their currency on the world market and import turtles.
“Us Polish guys don’t eat turtles,” quips Pokrywka. But for the Chinese, eating the creatures “amounts to a religion.” The Chinese apparently eat turtles not just for their taste, but for their purported medicinal properties—even if the turtles come from the Anacostia. Some believe certain turtles can cure cancer; others see the cold-blooded reptiles as Viagra on a half shell. Turtles are also increasingly found in Asian markets in New York and San Francisco.
New York may well be the destination for any turtles caught locally, but authorities really have no grasp on where the turtles go. “We’re resource managers. Where it goes from here is not a concern for us,” says Marguerite Whilden, a terrapin expert with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The two Maryland fishermen caught in District waters last summer also “may well not even know where the turtles go,” adds Michael Klemans, director of the Wildlife Conservation Fund’s Metropolitan Conservation Alliance. “They probably sold them to a middleman, who might sell them to a pet market or biological-supply business. There is a whole tiered system, an economy of turtle harvesting.”
Turtles are for the taking out on the Anacostia. In 1998, turtles overran Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, eating the park’s water lilies faster than gardeners could replace them. Gardeners had to replant one of the ponds three times. Park managers initially tried putting up hurricane fencing, but the turtles slipped through the slats, earning themselves the sobriquet “ninja turtles.” Park officials finally ended up putting up rat wire to keep the critters out. But they didn’t have the same problem last year.
Maybe that’s because turtle poachers beat them to it. Throughout last spring and early summer, volunteers with the Anacostia Watershed Conservation Society and the Sierra Club found turtle traps along the river. Rangers in the aquatic gardens also found traps in their waters. Whether the traps belonged to the two Marylanders or other poachers, “we really can’t say,” says Kim Elder, park manager for Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
Poachers can work along the Anacostia largely unnoticed. Other than the conservationists who take fish surveys, few people wander up the river. A low railroad bridge at the bottom of the river keeps most would-be explorers out: There is no bridge tender, and bridge owner Conrail demands 24-hour notice to open the bridge. So only low boats can make it under, and only during low tide.
For Officer Hance to get his police boat under the bridge, he has to take down the gate on the back of the boat that supports the vehicle’s sirens. If he waits too long and gets caught above the bridge during high tide, he has to wait several hours more for the waters to recede.
But if catching poachers is hard work, trapping turtles takes a certain amount of skill, too. Turtle traps are usually made of wire and are box-shaped. They’re placed along the banks of a stream or river with only the top sticking out. Turtles regulate their body temperature by moving between the water and the sunny bank all day long. So when an unsuspecting reptile comes out to catch some rays, it holds on to a float that is part of the trap. Before the turtle knows it, it falls in and can’t escape. To round up something on the order of 45 snappers, Klemans estimates a poacher would need about 30 to 40 traps. “If the area is protected, it could be a day or two’s worth of work.”
For now, the species is still doing fine. Unlike most turtles, snappers reproduce at a fairly steady clip. They can lay 50 eggs at a time. But although they may be abundant now, there are long-term consequences to harvesting them. “These animals live a long time,” as long as a hundred years, says Klemans. “They’re not programmed to be harvested this way.”
“All indications are they have a small range,” says Whilden. “If you harvested a population, you could wipe them out in one area in no time.” CP