Volume 14, Issue 7 ~ February 16 - February 22, 2006

There Ought to Be a Law …

Preserving a Bay Icon, the Terrapin

With terrapin numbers still unknown, Del. Virginia Clagett and terrapin advocate Marguerite Whilden push for a moratorium lest the state reptile slip away

by Carrie Steele

It’s been five years since the Governor’s Terrapin Task Force recommended halting catches of diamondback terrapins until population studies could determine if the species were plentiful enough to survive the harvest pressure. Nothing happened. Adding insult to injury, under Governor Robert Ehrlich, Maryland Department of Natural Resources cut Marguerite Whilden’s terrapin education program and her job. Now Whilden has founded her own Terrapin Institute, and Anne Arundel County Del. Virginia Clagett is seeking a legislative moratorium.

Bay Weekly: What would the bill that you’re proposing actually do?

Clagett: It prohibits the commercial harvesting of diamondback terrapins in the waters of Maryland. My reasons stem from the task force I was on, which suggested a moratorium to study terrapins and their population. There seem to be lots of anecdotal evidence that they’re in decline.

There are very few people who make their full livelihood catching terrapins, but they catch the females, which makes the population go down even faster.

This is very doable. Terrapins are an icon of Maryland.

Bay Weekly: So this action is overdue?

Whilden: A moratorium should have been done a long time ago, or harvesting at least severely restricted. This is the moratorium that was prescribed in the Governor’s Task Force five years ago.

The task force was to devise interim measures because we didn’t know how many turtles were out there or the market for them. We made 19 recommendations in order of importance, starting with a moratorium, then calling for a reduced season, then reduced slot limit [harvesting within a certain size range]. We were looking for the most efficient things to do.

If the administration can’t do it, there’s a legislative system that can. Our fisheries are in the hands of the state, and it’s time for the state to look at other options.

Bay Weekly: How long would the harvesting ban last?

Clagett: That’s what we’re holding a hearing about. A moratorium is possible. Virginia bans harvesting, and if the state of the Virginia can do something environmental like that, we should be able to also. They’ve done something forceful, and we should follow suit.

Bay Weekly: Does the bill include studying terrapins?

Clagett: I have another bill that’s already been in hearing. It [Bill 297] sets up Diamondback Terrapin Day as May 13. The preamble spells out all the recommendations from the task force and calls for population counting by Department of Natural Resources. The importance of May is that’s when female terrapins are seen crawling on beaches looking for nesting sites.

Bay Weekly: Is there some kind of provision for watermen who’ll lose income if they can’t fish turtles?

Clagett: I didn’t get into that. We haven’t heard what the numbers are, and most of the terrapins taken by watermen are unintentionally caught. They should be saved and maybe even counted.

Bay Weekly: So terrapins’ gain would be watermen’s loss?

Whilden: We’re willing to compensate watermen. If the state won’t do it, the Terrapin Institute would pursue with our own or private funds. We’ve contributed $25,000 to the industry. There’s not a whole lot of income coming in off of this animal.

I’m worried that this species is stressed right now. There’s not time for us to come up with a better way to manage the fishery.

Bay Weekly: Why is it worthwhile to save a species?

Clagett: I think the whole ecosystem would gain. This animal is historically important. And important commercially. But I’m afraid we’ll overkill and overharvest. Conservation of these species keeps the ecological web vibrant.

Bay Weekly: They’re charismatic animals, too.

Clagett: They’re gorgeous. I had a few terrapins for the House hearing, to show how big the females were, and [the security guards] wouldn’t let them in the door. They said only seeing-eye dogs could enter the hearing room. But I got them in.

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