The crowd at the bar is getting rowdy, and $10s and $20s are laid down. A rubbery sea turtle egg is brought out. Somebody swallows it whole and raw, chasing it with a beer.
That, believe it or not, is what turtle conservationists say is the heart of the sea turtle egg black market.
“The eggs are considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures. It’s a macho thing in some bars,” said Todd Steiner, Sea Turtle Restoration Project executive director.
Two freshly laid nests of loggerhead sea turtle eggs were poached in June on Folly Beach — one of them the night it was laid — the latest in an infrequent but recurring series of thefts along the Southeast coast.
The Folly Beach thefts, along with a theft in Georgia later in June, have conservationists worried about an apparent spike in poaching.
A man was arrested in Georgia, with a bag full of eggs, a handgun and marijuana. The Folly suspect or suspects are still being sought.
“We do seem to be hearing more about poaching,” said Dan Evans, of the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy. “It’s certainly a concern.”
Often, stolen eggs are for personal consumption. Sea turtle eggs are a traditional food in Asia, the Caribbean and the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
A generation ago, before the reptiles won protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, they were still foraged in the Southeast.
Thefts have been rare in the Lowcountry, but have tended to come in rashes, said Lt. Robert McCullough, of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. The last poaching on a Charleston-area beach was in 2002, he said.
The fine is steep, $1,000 per egg, because the turtles are a federal endangered species.
The market for eggs is bar bragging rights. If the thief knows an eager buyer, a single sea turtle egg can go for as much as $50 to $100, Evans said.
And a nest can hold more than 100 eggs.
“Hopefully, local law enforcement keeps an eye on it,” Evans said. “Hopefully (the Folly Beach thefts) are an isolated incident, not an incipient thing.”
Fresh nests are sought for fresher eggs, ones with the turtle essentially still in the yolk, like a chicken egg, Evans said. Loggerhead eggs aren’t a preferred taste, but in the Southeast the loggerhead is the dominant nest layer.
In the Lowcountry there has been far more concern about raccoons than people as nest predators.
“It was never on our radar before. We just thought it would never happen in Folly,” said Shannon Teders, Folly Beach Turtle Watch program co-leader.
The bar market is concentrated in southeast Florida around Miami, with its large Caribbean immigrant population, Evans said. The eggs evidently are enough of a delicacy that people are occasionally caught smuggling the eggs into the Miami airport.
The loggerhead turtle is a ponderous, beloved icon of the Lowcountry. Females crawl out of the sea each summer to make nests in the dunes.
It is one of seven sea turtle species, and all are threatened or endangered.
Year to year, South Carolina tends to have the second-largest number of sea turtle nests in the Southeast, behind Florida. A few thousand nests are laid here each year.
The hatchling survival rate is considered low, and the mature turtle numbers have appeared to be dropping.
After years of nest conservation work in the state, biologists are now guardedly optimistic that those numbers might stabilize or increase.
Overall, poaching is an alarming but a minor threat to the turtles so far, conservationists say.
“The Endangered Species Act works pretty well protecting sea turtles on these beaches. It’s in the sea that’s the real threat,” Steiner said.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.