Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 2:7
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Terrapin Conservation Efforts

Walker Golder1, David Lee2, and Marguerite Whilden3
1National Audubon Society, P.O. Box 443, Wrightsville Beach, NC 28480;
2The Tortoise Reserve, Inc., P.O. Box 7082, White Lake, NC 28337;
3Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources, Fisheries Service, 580 Taylor Ave, Annapolis, MD 21401;

The diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) has been considered a status review species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for over a decade. In part its conservation status has remained unchanged because the USFWS watches state designations and most states have little information concerning current population trends. Issues are further complicated by the fact that many states cover terrapin regulations under fisheries units, while state wildlife agencies typically oversee conservation status listings.

Several key issues face diamondback terrapins. These include a commercial harvest, illegal unregulated traffic for food markets, loss of nesting beaches through shoreline erosion and bulkheads construction, road mortality of nesting females, increased egg predation by growing populations of raccoons which are supplemented by garbage associated with coastal development, and fatal collisions with boats and jet skis. One of the most serious problems is the drowning of terrapins accidentally captured in crab pots. New Jersey and Maryland require terrapin excluders on all recreational crab pots. In several states similar programs are now under consideration. The Terrapin Research Consortium, a joint effort of the Terrapin Institute, Tortoise Reserve, and State of Maryland, has been convened to track these state innovations and efforts, share with others in the field, and bring about conservation and stewardship.

Diamondback terrapins are one of the most successful outreach and education species and enable a comprehensive conservation curriculum for citizens living in estuarine communities. The Maryland Fisheries Service, concerned with a vastly changing culture and economic conditions, devised a pilot program directed towards citizens who do not fish or otherwise do not fit into the typical resource agency demographics. The project which beckons “Make your connection at Terrapin Station” has thirteen connections to serve, at least one of these should pique everyone’s interest. Without much of a budget or promotional expertise, the Terrapin Station project with the persistence of a diamondback has developed quite a momentum of its own. Among the Terrapin Station devotees are a group of elementary school students who are Head-Starting terrapins in their classroom. As part of their holistic and integrated education, the students study habitat loss and restoration needs. They became concerned at the proposal to armor off yet another terrapin nesting beach. Students with terrapins in-hand petitioned Maryland’s Governor at the regularly scheduled Board of Public Works meeting and were successful in modifying the project such that this particular nesting beach would be preserved. The students also asked the Governor to proclaim a special day for the terrapin and suggested May 13, 2000, as this is the start of the breeding season in Maryland. The Governor obliged and plans are a foot around the tidewater of the State to celebrate in small and meaningful ways. Another very dedicated Terrapin Station student from a suburban high school is head-starting terrapins, assisting State biologists with monitoring and tagging, and meeting with middle school students once a week to guide them in their head-starting efforts. This student is our first Jr. Gillie, a subset of Terrapin Station in which high school students participate in a semester of intern stewardship and in turn mentor another grade level. The same student met personally with his Congressman and another top-ranking Member of Congress to ask for support of additional federal funding for wildlife and for their consideration of a national Terrapin Day. Both agreed to support an important funding bill. The diamondback seems to bring out the nobility in us all. More challenges and problems await.

One on-going problem is terrapin catch in “ghost” crab pots. Abandoned pots in some cases continue to capture and drown terrapins for years. The North Carolina Audubon Society, the Tortoise Reserve, and the Terrapin Institute have joined in a campaign to recover ghost pots in the vicinity of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. During the aerial surveys for nesting colonial birds Audubon staff members reported seeing thousands of ghost pots in shallow waters around Ocracoke Island. Many of these result from various hurricanes that have hit coastal areas over the last five years. The date of the crab pot clean up has not been announced, but it will be during the summer of 2000. Watermen and other local citizens will be invited to join in a weekend long retrieval of unattended pots. The pots will be fitted with by-catch excluders and given back to crabbers who volunteer to place excluders on an equal number of currently active pots. We plan to present a public program on the cultural and natural history of the terrapin during the weekend cleanup, and will attempt to make this an educational and festive event. Assuming the program is well received we will consider hosting similar events along the North Carolina and elsewhere along the mid-Atlantic states in future years.