Whither the terrapins?

Turtles: Gov. Parris Glendening and elementary pupils launch a study to find out if habitat loss is taking a toll on the terrapin population.

April 05, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

GRASONVILLE - Fear the turtle, as University of Maryland basketball fans warned during their team's run to the Final Four? Or, more likely, fear the loss of the turtle.

As shoreline development has spread, habitat for the diamondback terrapin - Malaclemys terrapin - has shrunk, leaving state biologists and environmentalists worried about the future of Maryland's "official state reptile" and the university's mascot.

Yesterday, with the help of elementary school students from Annapolis, Bowie and Millersville, Gov. Parris N. Glendening launched a Maryland Diamondback Terrapin Task Force to assess the status of the turtle and recommend steps to preserve it at the Horsehead Wetlands Center just south of the Kent Narrows Bridge.

"There may be a real problem in terms of terrapins disappearing," he told the youngsters gathered on a beach on Prospect Bay while a mass of terrapins crawled around a huge plastic tub nearby. "So we're going to do a serious, scientific study to find out if they're declining and why."

The governor and the students weighed, measured and tagged each terrapin, then set it at the water's edge and watched it slowly swim away in the heavy chop whipped up by a brisk north wind.

"Go, turtle, go," the children shouted as their terrapins took the first, tentative steps. "Go!"

Reese Fuller, a 9-year-old third-grader at Samuel Ogle Elementary school in Bowie, said he was "happy" for his turtle because it was returning to its natural home, and proud of himself and his fellow students for being part of the terrapin recovery program.

Reese and his classmates are part of a terrapin head-start program organized by their teacher, William Moulden, and Margeurite Whilden, a fisheries and education specialist at the Department of Natural Resources.

The students raise baby diamondbacks until they are large enough and their shells tough enough to survive on their own, then release them to the bay.

"With all the species that are disappearing, we decided to make the choice of Noah and let this species on the ark to preserve it," said Moulden, an environmental activist in Anne Arundel County.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Maryland's diamondback, one of seven subspecies of turtle that range from Canada to Mexico, was as much a Chesapeake Bay icon as the blue crab is today. Diamondback terrapin and terrapin stew - made with a large dollop of sherry - was on the menu of all the best restaurants in the bay region.

But diamondbacks were fished to commercial extinction to satisfy the huge market. During the Depression, terrapin was so scarce that the price outstripped the ability of consumers to pay and the market collapsed. Terrapins gradually recovered while the market for them remained dormant. But new threats emerged - commercial crabbing and shoreline development.

Terrapins got caught in crab pots and drowned, so the state required property owners to install rings to keep turtles out of the crab pots.

Homeowners protected their waterfront from erosion, in the process destroying the beaches where the creatures with the soft skin and the hexagon and pentagon shaped patterns on their shells built nests and mated.

"The assumption is the terrapin population is in decline because of the loss of habitat," said Eric Schwaab, director of fisheries with the state Department of Natural Resources. "But we don't have a good handle on that."

The department has launched a three-pronged attack that includes the stock assessment, programs to protect nesting habitat with volunteer waterfront property owners, and the turtle head-start program with elementary school students, he said.

Glendening had included $100,000 for the study in his supplemental budget, but legislators cut it, so he found $20,000 in the Department of Natural Resources budget to begin the work.

Yesterday, the students from St. Mary's Elementary School in Annapolis gave the governor a mayonnaise jar and a large pretzel jar containing more than $800 in small bills and change.

"Whoa, wait till the legislature sees this," Glendening said.

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