Diamondback terrapins got a pardon in March, when Maryland’s House and Senate approved bills banning the commercial harvest of the state’s favorite turtle.
The bills would end the state’s short commercial season for terrapins, which thrive in brackish waters around the Chesapeake Bay but are in decline. The bill passed the House 127–10; a similar version passed the Senate 43–2.
Some opposed the ban, saying terrapins should be protected by the state Department of Natural Resources, not through the law. “A number of my constituents said this is a bad idea,” said Del. Adelaide Eckardt, an Eastern Shore Republican who voted against the ban.
Sponsors of the ban acknowledged that the commercial catch of terrapins is small, but that the species needs all the help it can get when faced with habitat decline and other threats.
“We might lose one animal in our ecosystem, which is simply not acceptable,” said Del. Virginia Clagett, D-Anne Arundel, who sponsored one of the bans.
The House and Senate will have to reconcile minor differences in the two bans before sending it to Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The DNR Department of Natural Resources, which pledged to to put a moratorium on hunting terrapin, opposed the ban, saying the regulatory agency, not lawmakers, should make the decision.
Eric Schwaab, a deputy DNR secretary, said the terrapin is safe regardless of whether a law is passed. “We’ve been moving on a somewhat parallel track,” he said.
The turtles are hallmark creatures of the Chesapeake region and are the mascot of the University of Maryland in College Park.
The concern over terrapins is that they may be fished out of existence to supply a strong demand from the Asian seafood market. Although the terrapin has fallen out of favor as a local delicacy, there is a very strong demand for it in Asia, because the turtle, a symbol of longevity, is a prized soup ingredient. Turtle meat sells for around $20 a pound in China. It is also popular among the immigrant community in New York City.
Some East Coast states, including Delaware and Virginia, already ban commercial terrapin harvesting. Maryland was one of only four states that allowed the commercial harvest of the turtle.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said the terrapin’s misfortune is caused by development, not harvesting. Only about 40 people in the state catch terrapins commercially, said Simns, adding that a ban won’t stop the turtles’ decline. Watermen reported a catch of 10,050 turtles last year.
“It’s a feel-good thing for the legislature but they’re not really doing anything” because habitat loss is the main problem, he said. He pointed out that terrapins were once abundant on the western side of the Bay, but now are mostly found in rural parts of the Eastern Shore.
In hearings in February, biologists testified that terrapins are in decline, although the exact population isn’t known. Among those pushing for a ban were terrapin expert Willem Rosenberg of Ohio University and Jack Cover, curator of the National Aquarium of Baltimore. A recent study by Rosenberg found a 75 percent decline in reproductive age females in the Patuxent River in the last decade.
Cover said terrapins may be on “a slow spiral to extinction,” noting that terrapins take a long time to reproduce, which means they have a harder time bouncing back from overharvesting.
“If we want our terrapins around...we really have to end this fishery once and for all. It just won’t work for this species,” Cover told lawmakers. He joked, “You cannot have your state reptile and eat it, too.”
Terrains are essential to the Chesapeake ecosystem because they eat snails that are destroying the Chesapeake’s marsh grasses.