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The U.S. turtle hatchling industry took off when producers began maintaining breeding stock in fenced pond enclosures, and this practice has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950’s. Sanitizing and incubation techniques for eggs and hatchlings, however, have advanced significantly during the same period. In the late 1960’s, annual U.S. production of baby red-ear slider (Pseudemys scripta elegans) turtles reached 15 million hatchlings produced on 75 farms, most of which were located in Louisiana. This peak coincided with heavy domestic demand for these animals as inexpensive pets throughout the U.S. Shortly thereafter, however, the 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 they could be certified as salmonella-free, which was not possible with the technology available at that time. In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned all 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.
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 over the following two decades. Turtle hatchling sales exceeded $6.7 million by 2005, with 99 producers in the U.S. However, 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. Demand from Asian nations also began eroding by the mid-2000’s as commercial turtle farming of red-ear sliders became widespread in China, using captive breeding stock developed from imported hatchlings.
Turtle hatchling production in Louisiana has continued to decline in recent years, with estimated annual production now ranging between 0.7 and 1.2 million hatchlings. There are currently less than 20 licensed producers; some have not been operational for several years. In spite of reliable methods of producing salmonella-free hatchlings, restrictions on domestic markets remain in place due to concerns that when kept as pets these animals could pick up salmonella from their environment and pose the same health risks that initially prompted the FDA bans. Development of husbandry methods for species other than the traditional red-ear slider (snapping turtles, soft-shell turtles, map turtles, and many others) has allowed some producers to tap into new, albeit limited, export markets that demand more novel, decorative or behaviorally interesting animals.
The turtle hatchling industry is primarily comprised of individual operators that maintain breeding turtles and collect their eggs each morning during the laying season from early spring through late summer. Most farmers sanitize and incubate eggs onsite. Freshly laid eggs are placed in baskets, washed, rinsed, infused with sanitizing antimicrobial compounds and incubated for 8 to 9 weeks at optimum temperature and humidity. Hatchlings are held in baskets within plastic boxes, at 100% humidity, and are not fed before shipment because their yolk reserves are sufficient to maintain them for a number of months.
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. Major operating costs include labor, followed by feed, transportation, shipping, fuel, utilities, medications, and repairs and maintenance.
Marketing channels for red-ear slider hatchlings, historically the most common species sold as pets or for grow-out, are quite limited. Only a handful of major exporters, most of whom 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 in Louisiana and the investments required to produce salmonella-free hatchlings. Most of the continued demand for U.S. red-ear slider hatchlings is attributed to buyers in Asian nations, Eastern Europe and Latin America where turtles are marketed as pets. U.S. markets are limited to animals greater than four inches in size, and major chain pet stores require large-quantity contracts when seeking suppliers for these turtles.
As the standard of living increases in many Asian countries, there is a renewed demand for novel species and varieties in the pet trade. The emergence of a wealthy upper class has fueled demand for collectible turtle species throughout Asia, some of which are associated with good luck. 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.
The USDA’s 2018 Census of Aquaculture reported 45 farms producing turtles and/or turtle eggs, with a combined total of $4,678,000 in sales. Turtles were produced in nine states, with Louisiana and Florida reporting the highest numbers (15 and 14, respectively). These were also the only states reporting sales of turtle eggs. Other states reporting turtle farming operations included Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri and New Jersey.
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. Anyone in the U.S. with an interest in producing turtles over the next several years should consider which species make the most economic sense in terms of demand, the regulatory status of those species (state, federal and international aspects), appropriate production methods for those species, as well as domestic and international demand and buyers. Keep in mind that even the most exclusive varieties must measure at least 4 inches to be sold within the U.S., and substantial costs may be involved in raising hatchlings of many species to this size.
The expansion of turtle hatchling production at various times 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. However, apart from developing reliable markets, 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. Even when raised in captivity, brood turtles often require one to three years to become acclimated to breeding ponds and reproduce reliably.
- Pet Turtle Production, Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, SRAC Publication, 2000.
- USDA 2018 Census of Aquaculture https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/AgCensus/2017/Online_Resources/Aquaculture/index.php National Agricultural Statistics Service
- Turtle Farming in China https://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/archive/workshop-terrestrial-turtles-turtle-farming-in-china.pdf U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- CITES Turtles https://www.fws.gov/international/animals/freshwater-turtles.html U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Prepared by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center