Volume 14, Issue 28 ~ July 13 - July 19, 2006

Commentary

Terrapins Need Better Protection

DNR’s new regulations can hurt more than they help

by Marguerite Whilden with Jeff Popp

The diamondback terrapin, Maryland’s state reptile, is exploited as an educational tool for our children, an incentive for preserving and restoring tidewater habitats and a justification to expand dredge spoil projects like Poplar Island. We love our baby terrapins; they are great for public relations and press events. But what about the brood stock that produces them?

Maryland Department of Natural Resources has proposed new regulations that would limit harvested terrapin size to four to seven inches, shrink harvesting season and require reports from permitted commercial harvesters [Way Downstream: Vol. xiv, No. 26: July 5].

Unfortunately, the agency’s proposal is not the harvest moratorium originally proposed by the Maryland legislature in the 2006 session. Nor is it consistent with the 2001 Diamondback Terrapin Task Force Recommendations. The proposed regulations may also be contrary to state law and, more importantly, not good for terrapins.

Five years ago, in response to declining terrapin populations, a Governor’s Executive Order convened the Diamondback Terrapin Task Force to develop interim conservation measures. In September 2001, recommendations were presented to DNR to guide decisions until terrapin population estimates were completed.

DNR did nothing to protect terrapin populations until this year, when a bill prohibiting commercial harvesting was introduced in the legislature. DNR objected, pleaded for amendments and reluctantly offered a modest proposal to alter size limits and months in which the diamondback may be harvested.

We might be tempted to believe these restrictions are better than nothing, but that logic might be wrong. The DNR proposal could actually accelerate the demise of terrapins in the Chesapeake.

Under the current proposal, virtually all male terrapins, immature females and repatriated “head-started” terrapins raised by school children are fair game.

The new regulations may protect large reproductive females, but they allow the taking of terrapins before they reach reproductive age. A decreased harvest season may result in increased fishing effort. In response to more restrictions, more watermen may set more gear to extract more terrapins in less time.

The DNR proposal does not limit the number of terrapin harvesters or the number of terrapins harvested. It does not improve oversight of the terrapin trade, protect terrapin habitat or reduce by-catch mortalities. An estimated 2,000 commercial harvesters are eligible to take terrapins and could easily take more terrapins in one-third the time.

DNR admits it does not have population estimates or reliable data on the number of terrapins harvested and traded. Its reports indicate a 400 percent increase in terrapin trade, but no one knows how long wild stocks will last before they collapse again, as they did 100 years ago. DNR requests an additional $300,000 to hire staff to prepare the management plan and resurrect a terrapin management program over the next five years.

Since history and expert testimony demonstrate that terrapins are incompatible with harvesting, it might be cheaper and better for the species to close the fishery and compensate the few terrapin harvesters and dealers. According to a recent statement, DNR agrees that “additional conservation action is warranted, but the scientific basis for that is lacking. Despite what people would have you believe, they’re abundant.” Just what or who can we believe?

Information gathered by the Terrapin Institute from our recovered tagged terrapins is disappointing. Twenty percent of our research animals purchased during this season were previously purchased, tagged and released by us in 2005 or years before. If terrapins are so “abundant,” presumably watermen would not harvest tagged animals. Our findings do not bode well for terrapins or watermen. This is not the time to play fast and loose with the public trust.

We need more than “better than nothing.” Our commercial fishing industry will not be saved on the back of a turtle, but our environmental reputations may rest on what we do for our terrapin and its tidewater habitat.

This is not just about turtles. It may be prophecy for the Bay and anything else that lives in it. If we refuse to make concessions now to save the terrapin, how do we expect to save the entire estuary? For a new generation of Marylanders and watermen, the terrapin is worth much more in the Bay than it is in a box.

Make your opinions heard during the public comment period thru July 17 for the emergency regulation; July 21 to Aug. 21 for permanent regulation. Shoot an email to swidman@dnr.state.md.us or call 410-260-8260.

Marguerite Whilden was DNR’s staffer on the Diamondback Terrapin Task Force. After losing her job to budget cuts four years ago, she co-directs the Terrapin Institute in Shady Side with Jeff Popp, who also served on the 2001 Task Force.

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