By C. Greg Lutz, Pramod Sambidi and R. Wes Harrison, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center.
Revised June 2012 by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, email@example.com.
Although initially based on wild harvests, industry practices of maintaining turtle breeding stock in fenced pond enclosures have remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s. In the late 1960s, annual U.S. production levels reached as high as 15 million baby red-ear slider turtles, produced on 75 farms most of which were located in Louisiana. This peak coincided with heavy domestic demand for these animals as pets throughout the United States. Shortly thereafter, however, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control claimed that pet turtles might be responsible for up to 14 percent of salmonella infections in children throughout the country.
As a result, interstate commerce in pet turtle hatchlings was banned in 1971 unless the hatchlings could be certified as salmonella-free. In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned domestic sales, as well as interstate transport, of all turtles with shells less than 4 inches in width, citing continued concerns over salmonella. Hatchling production levels in Louisiana dropped to roughly two million per year, for shipment only to export markets, primarily in Asia and Europe. The FDA ban did not apply to turtles intended for export or for bona fide scientific, educational or exhibition purposes, which created opportunities for some domestic sales to continue.
By the mid-1970s, efforts were undertaken to identify mechanisms of salmonella infection in baby turtles, in order to develop effective preventive treatments. As disinfection methods were developed, export markets expanded somewhat. Quality controls in Louisiana’s turtle industry evolved through both regulation and industry practices. Hatchlings are assigned to specific “lots”of up to 20,000 turtles each. When species other than red-ear sliders are present (such as map turtles, Graptemys sp.), hatchlings are sorted into lots by species. Every lot requires its own health certificate. Certification requires that twelve random samples of five turtles each be drawn from every lot and tested for salmonella. If any sample is contaminated, the farmer has the option to request that the lot be sub-divided and that each group of turtles be re-tested. If salmonella is still determined to be present in any group the remaining animals in the lot cannot be sold.
Turtle hatchling sales reached between $3 and $4 million in 1986 and exceeded $6.7 million by 2005. During the same period, the number of U.S. producers grew from 25 to 99. After years of shipments, concerns over the ecological impacts of non-native species influenced the European Union to ban the import of turtle hatchlings in 1998, reducing demand throughout western Europe. Demand from Asian nations also began eroding several years later because commercial turtle farming of red-ear sliders had become widespread in China, with captive breeding stock developed from imported hatchlings.
Pet turtle hatchling production in Louisiana has declined in recent years, with annual production now ranging between roughly 2.2 and 2.7 million hatchlings. There are currently 69 licensed producers, although some have not been operational for the past several years. This decline was the result of several factors, including the extensive damage to facilities and loss of breeding stock caused by Hurricane Gustav in late 2008, global economic trends (virtually all hatchlings are exported) and increasing self-sufficiency in China’s farmed turtle industry. Nonetheless, development of husbandry methods for species other than the traditional red-ear slider have allowed producers to tap into new markets that demand more novel, decorative or behaviorally interesting animals.
The turtle hatchling industry is comprised of individual operators that maintain breeding turtles and collect their eggs during the laying season. Most farmers sanitize and incubate eggs onsite. Marketing channels for red-ear slider (Pseudemys scripta elegans) hatchlings, historically the most common species sold as pets or for grow-out, are limited. Only a handful of major exporters, most of which are also producers, handle the bulk of the industry’s production. In part, this has been a response to the testing protocols required for certification and the investments required to produce salmonella-free hatchlings.
In the past two decades, prices for turtle hatchlings have ranged from $0.21 to over $1.00. While supply and demand forces influence prices from season to season, economic success is generally more influenced within individual operations by capitalization levels, labor requirements and laying, hatching and disinfection rates. Clearly, economies of scale play some role in economic success. In analyses of an industry survey conducted in 1997, Hughes (1999) reported mean and median farm sizes of 6.1 and 2 hectares, respectively, indicating a substantial range in the size of individual operations.
Hughes reported that labor was the single greatest expense incurred by producers, accounting on average for roughly 20 percent of production costs. At approximately 16 percent of operating expenditures, feed was generally the second highest cost category, followed by transportation, at roughly 10 percent. Shipping, fuel, utilities, medications, and repairs and maintenance each accounted for less than 5 percent of operating costs. During the time since Hughes’ study, the proportional costs of feed and fuel have probably increased significantly. Profitability has historically been difficult to gauge, both for producers and brokers. Because demand continues to vary, supplies have been volatile from year to year.
Most of the continued demand for U.S. turtle hatchlings is attributed to buyers in Asian nations, Europe and Latin America where turtles are marketed as pets. China and other Asian countries typically grow hatchlings of various species as livestock for eventual slaughter and human consumption, but as the standard of living increases, there is a renewed demand for novel species and varieties in the Asian pet trade. Although nine other states reported having from two to five turtle farms in the 2005 census of agriculture, few alternative sources for turtle hatchlings exist other than those produced in Louisiana.
Louisiana’s industry is currently responsible for an estimated 60 to 80 percent of the global pet turtle trade. Reported pet turtle hatchling production in Louisiana was virtually unchanged in 2011 from the prior year, with sales of almost 2.7 million hatchlings valued at approximately $1.00 each. As the global economy improves over the coming decade, demand will probably increase in spite of competition from foreign suppliers.
Drivers of Demand
Breeding operations established in China over the past decade have allowed that country to reach a point where it can supply its own hatchling demand, at least for commonly farmed species such as red-ear sliders. As living standards continue to improve throughout Asia, demand for turtle meat should continue to rise, but more importantly, the emergence of a wealthy upper class has fueled demand for collectible turtle species, some of which are associated with good luck.
The expansion of turtle hatchling production over the years reflects the relative ease of establishing breeding ponds and sanitizing/incubating facilities. Suitable sites and access to technology are available to anyone wishing to develop a turtle hatchling business. Producers in Louisiana must certify their hatchlings as salmonella-free, which has helped in development of overseas markets for the pet trade. This requirement, however, may not prove as important for livestock uses, and other sources of supply for international markets may eventually emerge.
Currently, the U.S. turtle hatchling industry is highly concentrated in three regions within Louisiana, as well as a handful of operations in Florida. A few producers can be found in other states, but they face the marketing disadvantage of not participating in formal certification programs as has been established for Louisiana producers. It is estimated that fewer than 10 operations currently account for more than 40 percent of the total production. The traditional marketing situation, with growers selling to one of only a few brokers, has changed in recent years as independent producers gain expertise in locating and communicating with customers throughout the globe and in arranging shipments.
Barriers to Entry/Ease of Entry
Perhaps the largest barrier to entry for a prospective turtle producer involves the need to maintain breeding stocks and facilities through protracted start-up operations. Broodstock are generally collected from the wild or, occasionally, purchased from other turtle farms. Adult turtles are stocked at 18,500 to 37,000 animals per water-hectare. Even when raised in captivity, brood turtles often require one to three years to become acclimated to breeding ponds and reproduce reliably.
Emerging Developments and Issues to Follow
In response to concerns about development of antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella, alternatives to antibiotics are now being used in washing and vacuum treatment of eggs. Protocols evaluated under FDA supervision have provided a level of proof necessary to put any lingering concerns about salmonella in newly-hatched pet turtles to rest. But in spite of recent legal challenges there is no indication that the FDA will alter current regulations, a move that could potentially re-open a huge market throughout the United States. This is due to concerns that methods to maintain pet turtles as “salmonella-free” are either inadequate or would not be adequately practiced in many households.
Techniques developed for producing baby red-eared sliders have been adapted in recent years to accommodate other turtle species, and the industry will probably continue to diversify in this area, especially in light of the lagging demand for red-ear sliders. These “novel” species are often prized by collectors for their coloration or character, almost like designer dog breeds, high-end ornamental fish, or tropical birds. With some specimens fetching up to $10,000 or more in Asian markets, opportunities to propagate new species for the international pet trade are being explored by many U.S. producers.
Census of Aquaculture (2005), NASS, USDA, 2006.
Hughes, D.W. The contribution of the pet turtle industry to the Louisiana economy. Aquaculture Economics and Management 3(3):205-214, 1999.Agricultural and Natural Resources, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, 2009.