Terrapin Turmoil: To Save a Maryland Symbol, Legislature Comes Out of Its Shell
The General Assembly loves to give members of the executive branch the dickens.
But it’s rare when the Department of Natural Resources or any state agency blunders so badly that the Legislature takes over its responsibilities.
On behalf of one of Maryland’s mascots, the diamondback terrapin, that’s what the state Senate did last week.
“You say you’re going to have your regulations out by May? Save your efforts,” said Sen. Roy Dyson, a southern Maryland Democrat, during a hearing of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
“Shame on Maryland,” added Dyson, vice-chair of the committee, referring to our unwillingness to protect our state reptile even as states up and down the East Coast, even Virginia in its portion of Chesapeake Bay, ban terrapin-taking.
As you’ll read elsewhere in this issue of Bay Weekly, the General Assembly is stepping in to prevent more overharvesting of terrapins after DNR’s last set of regulations not only failed to slow the harvest but enabled the killing of thousands more.
At the hearing last week, senators and DNR representatives heard compelling reasons why Maryland’s terrapin protections have proved scandalously weak. The slow-reproducing terrapins, which can live to be 50 years old and don’t even become fertile until after at least eight years, simply can’t survive constant reductions from its fertile brood stock.
“A slow spiral toward extinction,” was how Jack Cover, curator of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, described the path terrapins have been on over the past decade.
“They’re 300 million years old now and they’re not doing too well with their new neighbors next door, human beings,” he said.
Added Tim Howen, president of Maryland Herpetological Society: “No turtle on the planet, period, can be harvested over any period of time. They’re not fish, they’re reptiles, and their biology can not support it.”
Yet under DNR rules, 14 fishermen removed 10,270 terrapins from Chesapeake waters last year.
DNR has yet to clearly say how it will respond to the General Assembly, adding that several remedies including a moratorium remain on the table.
We sadly agree with critics who point out that this late in the game of Bay pollution, even banning terrapin-taking altogether may not be sufficient to save them. That said, keeping them from dinner tables in Asia, where many Chesapeake Bay terrapins end up, is a reasonable beginning.