DENR raises alarm over threat of invasive turtle on local fish population

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ENVIRONMENT AUTHORITIES here expressed alarm over the proliferation of an invasive species of turtle that now threatens Central Luzon’s local fish population and other aquatic animals.

A growing population of the invasive Chinese softshell turtle, scientific Pelodiscus sinensis, prompted DENR authorities to create a task force to look into the animal’s distribution, feeding habits and reproductive characteristics.

Maximo Dichoso, executive director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Central Luzon, said his office received complaints from fishpond owners and operators about the turtle preying on local fish species, and bangus and tilapia fingerlings in fishponds.

“The Chinese softshell turtle has been classified as an invasive alien species (IAS) introduced in the country in the 90’s,” he explained, even as he warned the public about propagating or raising the animal as pet.

Today, the reptile is considered a threat to local biodiversity and a pest in the multi-million fish industry of Pampanga, Bulacan and Bataan.

Fishermen and fishpond owners from the towns of Arayat, Candaba, San Luis, Minalin, Macabebe and Apalit in Pampanga likened the turtle menace to the “golden kuhol” that wreaked havoc in rice farms during the 80s, reported Arthur Salazar, deputy DENR director for protected areas, wildlife and coastal zone management service (PAWCZMS).  

As this developed, the DENR ordered a team of biologists and conservation experts to conduct a six-month study to determine the impact of the softshell turtle on the environment and the local fishing industry of the affected provinces, and to identify wildlife management interventions from the DENR.

“We want to determine the rate of reproduction of this turtle species and come up with a regional policy on the allowable quota for its collection either for food or export,” Dichoso explained, noting that some private individuals have expressed willingness to “harvest” the turtles for export.

He said strong market demand for turtle meat in China and other Asian countries will open a highly lucrative and viable business opportunity among wildlife collectors in the affected provinces.

But while the reptile poses a threat to local biodiversity, there is also a need to regulate its collection and trade to avoid unnecessary competition among individuals issued with Wildlife Special Use Permit, and to ensure a sustainable turtle population without affecting the local fish industry, he added.

In Pampanga alone, three individuals have been issued permits to collect a combined 36,820 heads of live turtles this year, or about 30,700 kilos of turtle meat. Last year, 349,170 heads of live turtles, or 236,250 kilos of turtle meat were also harvested.

He said the DENR welcomes information that would shed light on the range and behavior of the reptile and urged the public to contact the nearest DENR office if there are sightings of the animal or if nesting sites are found.

The Chinese softshell turtle, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), is found in several countries, including China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and Russia where it is considered a native “delicacy” and made into turtle soup. In Japan, turtle meat is stewed with noodles and served as a winter delicacy.

A long history of the turtle being used as food in most Asian countries where it was introduced made it difficult to determine the extent of the reptile’s native range, although it is known to inhabit brackish water, rivers, lakes, ponds, canals and creeks with slow currents.

The Chinese softshell turtle is carnivorous and aggressive, preferring to forage at night to feed on fish, crustaceans, mollusks and insects.

The DENR is closely monitoring at least 15 invasive alien species of flora and fauna that are invading Philippine forests and lakes, including the highly aggressive Matica plant, known as “Buyo-buyo”, that has reportedly invaded banana and cassava plantations in the country.

A flowering shrub native to South America, “Buyo-buyo” has been found to suppress the natural regeneration of forests, and to colonize vacant agricultural areas and gaps in forest areas.

Also in the IAS watchlist of the DENR is the African bullfrog and African snail that feed on native wildlife species and unsustainably compete for nutrients and habitat with the local varieties.

Earlier, DENR Secretary Ramon Paje launched the four-year project “Removing Barriers to Invasive Species Management in the Production and Protection Forests in Southeast Asia” funded by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to shield the country’s forest ecosystem and agricultural areas from the threats of invasive alien species.