Turtle, frog importation ban to be reconsidered

Malibu resident Susan Tellem’s plans to celebrate World Turtle Day on May 23 are dampened somewhat by a decision by U.S. Fish and Game to reconsider a ban on importing nonnative turtles and frogs for food.

Malibu resident, who fights to save turtles and tortoises, was instrumental in obtaining the ban.

By Jonathan Friedman / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu turtle and tortoise activist Susan Tellem thought she would have reason to celebrate this year’s World Turtle Day on May 23 because of the recent decision by the California Fish and Game Commission to ban the importation of non-native turtles and frogs for the purpose of human consumption. But the commission decided earlier this month to reconsider the ban after hearing from Asian-Americans in the state Legislature and the seafood business who oppose the action because of what they said would be devastating cultural and economic impacts on the Asian-American community.

“After 16 years of trying to get this passed, we were finally thrilled,” said Tellem, who was devastated by the news of the commission’s decision to rehear the item.

Tellem said she has tried many angles to get the ban implemented over the years, including, in her opinion, that the trade is inhumane and that most of the imported animals carry diseases. She and her fellow activists finally won over the commission with the argument that the imported species pose a threat to native animals if they are released into the wild. The Department of Fish and Game requires those who import live frogs and turtles for human consumption to obtain permits on an annual basis. Under the policy change, they would be allowed to continue to import the animals until their permits expire.

Earlier this month, six Asian-American legislators sent a letter to the commission opposing the decision. They wrote that it “disproportionally targets Asian-American businesses.”

“There are a number of dramatic effects that this decision will have on seafood markets across the state,” the legislators wrote. “Turtles and frogs are a traditional cultural cuisine for many Chinese and other Asian-American cultures. Many of the live food markets are owned and managed by first-generation immigrants.”

The state leaders pointed to the fact the decision does not cover the importation of non-native species to be sold as pets, so the threat of the animals being released into the wild was not eliminated in their opinion.

A number of Asian-Americans involved in the seafood business came to the commission meeting on May 5 in Stockton to voice their opposition. Henry Chung, a seafood distributor from San Francisco, said he was not aware of anybody who imports them for food releasing the species into the wild.

“It will have a great economic impact and many jobs will be lost because the fish market restaurants hire lots of people to do the job,” he said.

Commission President Jim Kellogg told the speakers that he would call for a hearing to reconsider the decision. But he and other commissioners questioned why they had never previously heard from opponents. Nobody spoke in opposition to the measure during the hearings when the item was being considered.

Tellem said the arguments against the ban that were presented are the same ones she has heard throughout the years. She said they would still be able to sell the animal food products, they just could not import live, nonnative ones. Also, she said the “race card” is used too often.

“I’m an animal person,” Tellem said. “I don’t care who is doing it. I don’t care if it’s a Martian selling them.”

Tellem and her husband, Marshall Thompson, founded World Turtle Day in 2000 as a day for people to respect turtles and tortoises throughout the world. The couple has been involved in turtle and tortoise rescue efforts for two decades. They founded American Tortoise Rescue in 1990 as an operation to rescue turtles and tortoises that were in danger, and to adopt them out to responsible people. They are no longer involved in the rescue and adoption field, and concentrate their efforts on legislation.

“They’re becoming extinct,” said Tellem of turtles and tortoises. “They predated the dinosaurs and they have survived all these millions of years. And in the past 50 years, we’ve pretty much decimated their habitat.”

Tellem said there are several ways people can help to protect turtles and tortoises, with the most important being not to buy them. She said there are so many rescue groups offering them for adoption that there is no excuse for buying one. There is a list of rescue places on the American Tortoise Rescue’s Web site at www.tortoise.com.

This Thursday’s commission hearing will take place in Sacramento at 9:30 a.m. Public speakers can make comments through teleconference, but they must go to select locations to do this. The closest one to Malibu is in Ontario at the Department of Fish and Game, Inland Deserts Region. The address is 3602 Inland Empire Blvd., Suite C-220. As of Tuesday, the Department had not decided if it would Web stream a live audiocast of the meeting at www.fgc.ca.gov. Contact 916.653.4899 for more information.