The O'Malley administration plans to impose a moratorium on the trapping of diamondback terrapin, the Maryland mascot threatened by a growing market in China for turtle soup.
"The governor is committed to protecting the terrapin," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said yesterday in announcing the moratorium. "He feels that the terrapin is a state treasure ... and a species in need of conservation."
His comments came after a state Senate committee held a hearing on a bill, sponsored by Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, that would outlaw catching the turtles.
The administration opposes passage of such a law, saying that a moratorium through regulation would preserve the traditional power of the state Department of Natural Resources to regulate fisheries. And regulations could allow a resumption of trapping if terrapin populations rebound, officials said.
The terrapin, a species of turtle uniquely adapted for the brackish mixture of salty and fresh water found in the Chesapeake Bay, is the official state reptile and has been the mascot of the University of Maryland since 1932.
They survived near-extinction during a Victorian-era craze for terrapin soup, a delicacy on the level of caviar dished out in upscale restaurants. But since the late 1990s, turtle traps have multiplied as Chinese buyers have sought Chesapeake terrapin because their country's turtle populations have been depleted.
Last August, the Ehrlich administration imposed trapping rules designed to reduce the terrapin harvest, but the regulations backfired. Lower size limits allowed more than 10,000 terrapin to be trapped last year, a 20-fold increase over the number reported the year before, according to state figures.
Kenneth B. Lewis, government affairs chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland, which submitted testimony supporting Dyson's bill, applauded the governor's move.
"This is great news," Lewis said. "Terrapin are an important part of the ecosystem. ... The fact that this comes down from the governor makes it easier for everyone down the line and accomplishes what the public wants."
It's not clear how long a moratorium would last because the natural resources department hasn't drafted the regulations or held hearings on them, officials said.
The department will hold a public meeting on the regulations at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the agency's headquarters, 580 Taylor Ave. in Annapolis.
That will be followed by a study period and then the submission of regulations, which should be in place by the end of May, according to a letter sent to Dyson yesterday by Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin.
On Jan. 24, Griffin sent O'Malley a memo recommending a "harvest moratorium by regulation," and the governor signed and approved it, according to a copy provided by O'Malley's office yesterday.
"Because terrapin are a nonresilient species faced with severe habitat loss, any miscalculation of harvest controls could result in a population collapse that would take decades to reverse," Griffin wrote to the governor.
In a phone interview yesterday, Griffin cautioned that even a ban on catching the turtles might not save them because rapid development of shorelines is destroying beach nesting habitat. "Even if we declare a moratorium, we may not see an immediate turnaround," Griffin said. "The pace of development is arguably more significant than harvest pressure."
During yesterday's hearing, speakers from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Coastal Conservation Association, the Chesapeake Audubon Society and other groups testified in favor of the ban.
Dyson testified and introduced as "witnesses" a pair of diamondbacks, named Emily and Edward, which wiggled their claws and arched their necks as they were held aloft by a pair of aquarium herpetologists.
The senator pointed out that the terrapin state, Maryland, is ironically one of the few that hasn't banned trapping of the diamondback.
"There is no commercial harvesting of terrapin in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi," said Dyson, flanked by the live turtles.
"Even that hotbed of environmental protection, Texas, is thinking about a ban," he said. If Maryland doesn't protect its state reptile, he warned, fishermen from the other states will descend on the unregulated Chesapeake and "overfish and perhaps eliminate our terrapin."
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he supports regulations to protect the terrapin. But he said a law that outlaws catching them, without limiting waterfront development, would be "hypocritical" because it wouldn't stop the development of beaches, which is more harmful to terrapin than trapping.
"You are going to go out here feeling really good that we saved the terrapin," Simns said. "But if you don't protect the habitat of where the terrapin lay their eggs, and cut down on the development of these shorelines and these beaches, you haven't done anything."
Richard Stanley, an attorney representing a group called the Chesapeake Terrapin Alliance, said a law permanently banning their capture would be better than a moratorium by regulation because it would be more permanent.
In supporting the legislation, aquarium curator Jack Cover said: "All the Marylanders we talked to were shocked that we eat our state reptile. You can't have your state reptile and eat it, too."