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Save a Turtle, Avoid a Fine

Every crab pot needs a turtle excluder

Recreational crabbers are required to use traps with excluders, but there is no requirement that traps be sold with ­excluders in place.

You consider yourself a law-abiding citizen, sensitive to the environment and the creatures that share the Bay with us. So imagine your horror when you discover your crab pots have been putting the Maryland state reptile — the diamondback terrapin — at risk, and breaking the law while doing it.
    Diamondback terrapins (turtles to most of us) like the shallower waters of our rivers and creeks. As they are attracted to the same foods as crabs, they often find their way into crab traps. Turtles can hold their breath a long time, but not long enough to survive an overnight stay in a crab trap. So they drown.
    Unless your crab box is fitted with a turtle excluder.
    Turtles are taller than crabs. Restrict the height of the entrance to crab traps and crabs can get in, turtles not. Turtle excluders fix the opening of crab traps to a specific size optimized to let in the most crabs while keeping out turtles. The 13⁄4-by-43⁄4-inch size of is well chosen. Multiple studies on the devices have shown a significant reduction in turtle deaths while having no effects on crab catches.
    Turtle excluders are not just a good idea; they are the law.
    Who knew?
    Thus compliance has been low. A 2012 study by Maryland Department of Natural Resources showed only 24 percent of homeowners using crab traps also used turtle excluders.
    The problem starts with a quirk of Maryland law: Recreational crabbers are required to use traps with excluders, but there is no requirement that traps be sold with excluders in place.
    “In our 2009 study, only 17 percent of bait shops were selling pots with” excluders, DNR marine biologist Scott Smith told Bay Weekly.
    I was among the guilty. Only my two newest crab traps had excluders. Their presence was due to luck; my local hardware store stocks only this type.
    Neither of my two older traps had excluders. These would need to be retrofitted.

Cheap and Easy Solution
    Step 1 is finding the devices. I called the four tackle shops I frequent in Annapolis and Pasadena. At all four, the person answering the phone knew exactly what I was talking about. Two shops had the excluders in stock; the other two expected shipments.
    DNR publishes a list of retailers selling the devices:
    There are two styles, one a heavy wire ring, the other cast plastic. Both have the prescribed opening size. I needed a total of eight to fix my two traps; I bought four of each type for $6 a set.
    Step two is installation. Use cable ties and a wire cutter. For stainless steel hog rings, you’ll need special hog-ring pliers. Kits with the pliers and rings are sold at most local tackle shops.
    I took one additional step. One of the studies showed that plastic excluders painted red caught more crabs than other colors. The theory is red, a coloring on female crabs, attracts males. Like any fisherman, I’ll try everything for an advantage, so I was off to the hardware store for a spray can of red Krylon Fusion to change the color of my plastic excluders from orange to red.
    Installation wasn’t too hard; about 15 minutes for each cage. The plastic excluders were harder to install because of their larger size. Using the cable ties was easy, but I worry about how long they will last in saltwater. The metal excluders slipped into the openings easily and were quickly fastened with hog rings. I recommend that method.

The Final Touch
    If you’re a waterfront homeowner who crabs, you need to register your traps with DNR and to have them labeled with your name and address or DNR ID number.
    (Didn’t know? Learn more at
    Registration is easy and free. Use the DNR COMPASS system (see sidebar for quick instructions). When you register, you’ll get the ID number used to label your traps. There is no required method of labeling. I used a permanent magic marker to add my ID to small white floats (about $2 each) that I tied to the end of the trap lines.
    If it costs less than $10 and 15 minutes to make a crab trap turtle-safe and legal, why is compliance so low? Judging by my recent education, I suspect it’s not a matter of cost or know-how but a lack of awareness. So tell your friends and neighbors, save more turtles — and save a fine.

Register Your Crab Pots

    DNR’s COMPASS system for registering crab pots is user-friendly but not obvious. Follow these steps:
    Begin by opening an account on the COMPASS home page:
    Choose Purchase a New License … then Sports Fishing … Free Registration … 365 private waterfront property crab pot registration.
    Check the box, then add to cart, proceed to checkout and print your registration card.