A ban on trapping the diamondback terrapin passes after advocates stick their necks out

Maryland's turtle finds safe waters

April 11, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Fear the turtle lobby.

In winning General Assembly approval of legislation to outlaw the trapping of diamondback terrapins, conservationists waged a quirky but highly effective campaign.

They introduced a photogenic terrapin couple, Emily and Edward, as "witnesses" at a hearing about Maryland's mascot. They passed out hundreds of DVDs documenting the decline of the signature Chesapeake Bay species. And they brought in a quick-tongued turtle lawyer, who dashed off an eleventh-hour amendment securing the bill's protections.

With just 22 minutes until Monday's midnight end of the 90-day General Assembly session, the Chesapeake Terrapin Alliance finally won its goal: a ban on the commercial trapping of terrapin. The victory came after failure last year and amid continued opposition from watermen.

"It was a nail-biter, running down to the very end," said Jack Cover, general curator of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, who helped lead the effort. "I am very elated. ... This is a necessary step for the long-term survival of the terrapin."

More remains to be done before the diamondback is out of danger, advocates say, including halting the development of beaches that terrapins need for nesting. But now Maryland joins 11 other states, including Delaware and Virginia, that have outlawed catching the slow-reproducing reptile.

"It was literally chaos trying to get through the legislative process," said attorney Richard Stanley, who practices tax law when he's not providing free legal services to the Terrapin Alliance. "There were a lot of times when this could have died. But people are ecstatic that we succeeded."

The species -- with characteristic diamond-shaped bumps on its shell -- is unique for its ability to survive in the mixture of salty and fresh water in the Chesapeake Bay. The turtles play an important role in protecting wetlands by eating periwinkles, marine snails that devour marsh grass.

The "terps" have been the mascot of the University of Maryland since 1932.

Trappers have taken the reptiles in the Chesapeake for centuries, first as food for Native Americans and slaves, then as a delicacy in upscale restaurants at the end of the 19th century.

The diamondbacks were nearly driven to extinction during the Victorian-era craze for terrapin soup but rebounded when local tastes changed. But over the past five years or so, their recovery has been imperiled by a rising market in Asia for Chesapeake turtle soup.

Last summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources imposed a ban on trapping from November through July, but the measure allowed the trapping of smaller turtles the rest of the year. The rules backfired, and the number of terrapins reported caught last year jumped to more than 10,000 -- a twentyfold rise from the previous year.

The state agency joined watermen in opposing the outlawing of terrapin harvesting, and Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration said in February that it planned a moratorium as an alternative to an outright ban.

But state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, and Del. Virginia P. Clagett, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County, joined advocates in pushing for the ban.

"We don't want to eat our state mascot -- what a terrible idea," said Dyson, who attended the University of Maryland briefly.

The proposed trapping ban passed the House of Delegates, 127-10, on March 15, and cleared the Senate the same day, 43-2. But an Eastern Shore terrapin farmer objected, and others also expressed concern about the impact on such aquaculture.

Last week, state Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a member of the state's Aquaculture Coordinating Council, succeeded in amending the bill to allow the continued capture of terrapins to supply turtle farms. Debate over the amended measure raged until nearly the end of the session -- when lawmakers agreed to ban the capture of terrapins for any purpose except research, but to let turtle farmers keep breeding terrapins from eggs.

The save-the-terp movement was started by Willem M. Roosenburg, a biologist at Ohio University who grew up in Southern Maryland.

In the early 1970s, Roosenburg said, he became fascinated with terrapins when he was out fishing on the Patuxent River and saw hundreds of heads peeking up from the glassy waters around his rowboat. He started studying the turtles in 1987, and from 1996 to 2006 documented a 75 percent drop in females in the river.

"I have been recommending for years closing the commercial harvest of the species," said Roosenburg, who testified in favor of this year's ban.

In the late 1990s, Roosenburg was contacted by a state Department of Natural Resources employee named Marguerite Whilden, who wanted his help in creating a program to teach students about terrapins.

In July 2000, Whilden wrote a memo to her bosses at the state agency suggesting "an immediate prohibition of the take of terrapin from Maryland waters." But she was laid off in 2003.

Determined to keep fighting, she started a nonprofit group that bought thousands of terrapins caught by watermen and released them back into the bay.

Last spring, Whilden lobbied for a bill outlawing terrapin trapping. But her homegrown effort failed.

This year, the cause was led by bigger and better-funded conservation groups, including the National Aquarium and the Maryland Audubon Society.

"It's wonderful that the ban finally passed," Whilden said, lifting a terrapin from a tank in her yard and dangling it close to her face. "This is a crisis with a face. Oysters don't have a face. Crabs don't really. But look at the smile on this terrapin. This is the face of conservation."

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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