Thinking of turning your pet turtle loose in the great outdoors? Shell no

Non-native species can wreak havoc on an ecosystem, warns new educational campaign

A new Department of Fisheries and Oceans campaign aims to stop people from dumping their aquatic pets into St. John's waterways.

DFO aquatic invasive species biologist MacGregor Parent says non-native species like turtles and goldfish can wreak havoc on an ecosystem.

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"If they're released into the environment they can cause a lot of damage because generally non-native animals have the potential to become invasive by damaging the environment," Parent told CBC News.

"Because they have little predators, they can out-compete native species for both food and space."

The campaign, called Don't Let It Loose, the work of the federal department in Newfoundland and Labrador and the conservation group Stewardship Association of Municipalities.

macgregor-parent/Chelsea Jacobs/CBC

DFO aquatic invasive species biologist MacGregor Parent says non-native aquatic life can wreak havoc on an ecosystem. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)

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The initiative is relatively new to Newfoundland and Labrador but is well established in other parts of the country where invasive species is a big issue, said Parent, adding it's becoming a more pressing problem in the province.

"Here we have been seeing increased reports in people letting us know that, 'hey, we're seeing things like turtles and fish in waterways that look like they're not supposed to be here.'"

The campaign was jump-started by last year's spotting of red-eared turtles in Bowring Park. Eight signs have been installed in St. John's and Mount Pearl.

In the past few years DFO has been getting more reports of different animals in the waterways, said Parent. There was a report last year of crayfish in Conception Bay South waters that didn't survive the winter. The department also received reports of koi found in Mount Pearl's Branscombe's Pond last summer.

turtle/Chelsea Jacobs/CBC

Many of the turtles in Dennis Oliver's Turtle Rest and Retirement Villa care are red-eared sliders, which are permitted in Newfoundland and Labrador as pets. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)

"So it definitely seems to be, maybe, a growing issue here," said Parent. "That's why we want to get the message out there, to not release … aquarium pets or plants."

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People who can't care for a turtle anymore should ask family or friends to take it in, she said, or contact the pet store where it was purchased for suggestions.

DFO is also tracking non-native aquatic species sightings, which people can report, said Parent, and there is a phone line to go with the campaign.

Turtles rescue

In a house in the east end of St. John's, a basement has been turned into a water wonderland for turtles.

Dennis Oliver, president of the non-profit Turtle Rest and Retirement Villa, has 63 turtles in his care. All but one of them were surrendered to his organization, he said.

scarlett-the-east-african-serrated-side-neck-mud-turtle/Chelsea Jacobs/CBC

Scarlett the East African serrated side-neck mud turtle is one of the turtles in Oliver's care that requires special attention due to a medical condition. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)

There are a multitude of reasons for people to give up their pets, he said, including the rising cost of living and people being too ill to continue to care for them.

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"Especially with the housing crisis rental increases, we have seen an increase in how many surrender requests we're getting," he said.

Education is also an issue because people don't realize how expensive caring for a turtle can be or how long they can live, added Oliver.

Oliver and his turtle menagerie are partnering with the Don't Let It Loose campaign.

"We are going to be campaigning around schools, and wherever the Stewardship Association of Municipalities wants to send us, we're going," he said.

"It doesn't matter if it's fish. It doesn't matter if it's a turtle. It doesn't matter what it is. If it doesn't belong here, what are you doing letting it in the wild?"

While Oliver said he's thrilled with the new initiative to discourage people from letting their pets lose, he's also calling for more enforcement from the provincial government regarding what types of animals are allowed into the province.

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Oliver says education is needed for people to understand how expensive turtles can be and how long they live. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)

Many of the turtles in his care are red-eared sliders, which are permitted into N.L. as pets. But he said he also has yellow-bellied sliders, which aren't permitted in the province without a permit. He also has one Texas river cooter, as well as a Ouachita map turtle, a Mississippi map turtle and many "morphs," the term for a mixed breed.

His organization also gets calls from people who have spotted turtles in bodies of water around town, like the red-eared slider that was found last summer in Bowring Park.

He said his organization can also provide support for struggling turtle owners, so he urged people to not let them loose.

"If you think that you're going to take one of these turtles and, you know, 'I'm doing them a favour by letting them go'? Well, you're not. Especially if you throw them into a river. A fast-moving body of water, you probably just killed that red-eared slider."

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Thumbnail courtesy of Elizabeth Whitten/CBC.

The story was originally written by Elizabeth Whitten and published for CBC News.