Volume XI, Issue 16 ~ April 17-23, 2003

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NOT Burton on the Bay
**Bill Burton is ill. His column will return next week.**

Fear for the Turtle
by Steve Carr

Maryland terrapins are hot! And by that, I don’t mean the sports teams. I’m talking about turtles.

Testudo, the dancing diamondback terrapin, is the symbol for the University of Maryland. His statue adorns the College Park campus, and students rub his bronze shell for good luck before big games, tests, dates and who knows what else.

Therein lies a story. Testudo is not a diamondback terrapin but rather a cute artistic rendering of some hybrid turtle that exists nowhere but in the mind of some public relations guy. I wish I could say that I had noticed this myself, but I didn’t until my friend Margie Whilden, the Turtle Lady, who follows these things a lot more closely than I do, pointed out that Testudo is all wrong.

“He looks more like a box turtle,” said Margie. “You’d think that a college would know better than to call themselves the Terrapins and then put a box turtle on their logo.”

Maryland’s Missing Turtle
In my experience, the diamondback terrapin is just as elusive in real life. I have never seen one in the wild. Growing up along the Severn, I should have stumbled onto at least one of the little buggers in my lifetime, but I can’t recall a close encounter of any kind. I saw tons of box turtles, and Woolchurch Cove was virtually teeming with snappers and painted turtles. But diamondbacks were a no-show. This despite the fact that with the distinctive, brightly colored, diamond-shaped design adorning their shell, it’s not likely you’d confuse them with anything else.

Keep in mind that over the years, millions and millions of pounds of diamondback terrapin have been harvested for food from all around the Bay. Terrapin soup was considered a delicacy, and during the 1800s and 1900s there was a bustling terrapin industry centered on the port of Baltimore, catering to the gourmet tastes of diners in the fanciest restaurants from New York City to San Francisco. The diamondback terrapin put the Chesapeake Bay on the culinary maps of the world long before anyone ever noticed the blue crab. Commercial diamondback farms flourished on virtually every major tributary of the Chesapeake. St. Helena’s Island, on the Severn, still sports the remains of an old terrapin pond.

Yet most Marylanders will go their entire lives without ever actually seeing an undomesticated diamondback. How can that be?

We don’t know the answer to that question because there is no hard data when it comes to the terrapin. We don’t know how many there used to be or how many there are right now. We don’t know where they live, breed or even die. We don’t know if their numbers are going up or down. And we really aren’t sure what makes these turtles tick at all. It’s just a big ol’ mystery.

A Little Help
That’s where we come in. Volunteers from all around the state, mostly school kids, have been enlisted by the state Department of Natural Resources to study the diamondback. Former Gov. Parris Glendening gave his stamp of approval for a wide range of state initiatives designed to put the terrapin back on our radar screens. The first move was to designate May 13 as Terrapin Day.

The Turtle Tots Head-Starting program has been the most noticed of the programs, both regionally and nationally. At local schools, kids raise the turtles from little babies the size of quarters in special terrariums. After about a year, the juveniles, now the size of English muffins, are ready to be let loose into the wild. They are tagged and then kissed goodbye by their foster parents before they are released into the dark waters of the Bay. It’s a sad and yet joyous moment for everyone involved — except the turtles.

In addition to these feel-good programs, the state has budgeted money — not nearly enough, of course — to begin some real scientific studies about the terrapin to try and get a handle on their breeding populations, estimate their numbers in certain areas, monitor their habits, identify threats and recommend management measures. This is a good first step. Up until now, the only people who had even the slightest idea of what was happening with the diamondback were our local watermen. Watermen will continue to play a major role in this important stock assessment.

But we really don’t need another government study to tell us the obvious. If there once were enough diamondbacks around the Bay to support an entire fishing industry, then it stands to reason that the terrapins’ numbers have gone down an awful lot. We know that osprey, eagles and heron prey on the terrapin’s eggs, but that wouldn’t explain the almost universal disappearance of the terrapin from the Bay.

My own informal scientific study conducted here at the Carr Research Center has concluded that the biggest threat to the terrapin is — Surprise! — us. You and me.

The Enemy is Us

Let’s start with all the sediment and crud we keep dumping into the Bay every day. Then add in all of the boat traffic. Propellers grind up untold numbers of turtles each boating season. Crown this lethal mix with the biggest culprit of them all: the hardening of our shorelines.

Turtles need sandy beaches to lay their eggs, and beaches are fast becoming a thing of the past around the northern and middle Bay. Rock revetments are turning our shorelines into one giant stone fortress, blocking access to the soft sand where turtles can bury their eggs.

Last year, a poor, battered mother terrapin was found jammed hopelessly between two breakwater stones in Whitehall Bay. Somehow she had managed to climb up a rock revetment and bury her eggs in a nearby lawn. But on her way back to the sea, she had been hit by a wave crashing against the breakwater and became hopelessly wedged into the cracks between several large stones. By the time she was noticed by someone, she had literally scraped her leg off trying to get free of the rocks — yet another victim of the human imperative to protect our waterfront property at all cost from the natural forces of nature.

(Volunteers from the Terrapin Rescue Network were able to save the mother and salvage the baby turtles, which were eventually reintroduced into Whitehall Creek, their natal waterway.)

So we can study turtles until the cows come home, but as long as the state allows homeowners to eliminate our remaining Bay beaches with reckless abandon — rather than require them to try a softer approach that involves segmented breakwaters and marsh creation — we can pretty much resign ourselves to the sad fact that the diamondback is a goner. If they can’t lay their eggs, then there will be no next generation.

Terrapin is an Algonquian Indian word. And Indian creation myths from all around the world almost uniformly involve turtles in some variation on the same theme: Earth rests atop the shell of a mother turtle. Unbelievers and clever sorts have always been quick to pose the question, Then what does the mother turtle stand upon? Well, by now the truth should be clear. They stand upon us.

The real question is: Can we support them?

Steve Carr owns an environmental consulting business and is a past president of the Severn River Association. An avid birder who enjoys canoeing, hiking and bicycling, he has written extensively about the Bay for many years and has lived along the Severn River his whole life.



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Last updated April 17, 2003 @ 1:57am