Growing up on Long Island, I loved turtles. Painted, snappers, box turtles, spotted turtles, mud turtles. But for me the most elusive and by far the most beautiful were The Diamondback Terrapins. Their habitat is salt water marsh. They will spend their entire lives in that marsh, with only the females leaving it to nest. I never saw any even 50 years ago in Browns River. The one I saw had been caught around the mouth of The Connetquot, further west, where there were still marshes, though fast degrading.
One finds pockets of them, today, for instance around Gilgo Beach, where there are some marsh islands. Here, though, they often meet fate of becoming roadkill on Ocean Parkway or are hit by boats. At Gilgo Beach, their nesting area has had a kids playground built on it, right by the snack bar. They’ve no where else nearby to nest.
We all still remember of course the massive die off of Diamond Back Terrapins at Tuttle’s Creek in The Peconic Bay — High nitrogen runoff made the ribbed mussels that are a main part of the terrapin’s diet extremely toxic to them, wiping them out by the hundreds.
Another threat to their population have been crab traps. For years, the environmental community has been trying to put into law a requirement that crab traps have terrapin excluders. Whole populations in various bays have been decimated by these traps since the terrapins swim in, perhaps lured in by a crab, but then they are in turned trapped and drown.
Then there is the fact that it is still legal to harvest these beautiful creatures for food, where they are often exported. Terrapin soup was once a great delicacy. We can’t afford to serve it any more. The good news is at last a law has been passed to ban the harvest of The Diamondback Terrapin in New York State. Unfortunately, the law is not to take effect until May 2018. Save The Great South Bay takes the position that if it make sense to ban their harvest at last, it makes sense to do so immediately. Through decades of habitat destruction and poor management, we have decimated their population. Here’s what to do: Contact The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation via this link to Carl LoBue’s excellent summary of the issue on Fireislandandbeyond. The comment period ends June 6th.
Yes, lets save our terrapins! And not only because we share our bay with them. They are essential to our bay! If we save the terrapins, we will also save our marshes. Without terrapins, what is going to eat the periwinkles? Left unchecked, a periwinkle population can decimate a marsh. At the end of the day, saving The Great South Bay means revitalizing ecosystems, understanding the crucial role that every creature has to play (including mosquitoes — will post on Vector Spraying and its horrors soon).
For the Diamondback Terrapins of Gilgo Beach, it would be great if we managed it as a nesting area, such as what Russell Burke, a Professor of Herpetology at Hofstra University does with his Jamaica Bay Terrapin Research Project: Volunteers find nests, catalog the females, cover then with chickenwire covers to prevent predation, being stepped on, then all wait until they hatch, where they again get a big assist for the volunteers. That would be positively the best use of that otherwise empty playground during nesting and hatching. As one of my directors is a Grateful Dead fan, we’d call it Terrapin Station. Here is one of the reported 30 or so terrapins that nest here.
Another place I’d love to see Diamondback Terrapins protected is right in the marshes along by The Connetquot River. George and RIchard Remmer, five generations on The South Shore, with Richard running The Snapper Inn, and George The Wharf and teaching marine biology when he isn’t fishing, swimming, or boating on the bay, remember when there was a profusion of life in the Pickman-Rimmer Tidal Wetlands Area , which is 131 acres. Birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, now mostly gone. As the Remmers, and New York Rising, with the DEC, Suffolk County, The Town of Islip, and other local civic groups and citizens working to reconnect the marsh to the bays tides, which would need to be followed by the marshes revitalization, which would include a reintroduction of The Diamondback Terrapin and the flora and fauna that was once there. At this juncture, vector mosquito spraying needs to be banned, especially marshy areas, and in those areas where you are trying to preserve and restore habitat, which frankly given how fast our marshes and the wildlife they support are all disappearing. Kill mosquito larvae, you decimate the populations of all that eat them, including bats and dragonflies. You take food from fish, frogs, tadpoles, and baby terrapins. And without them, the marsh may be infested with periwinkles and not thrive.
In closing, for those would like to learn more about The Diamondback Terrapin and our efforts to save it on Long Island, please view this episode of Water Matters, where I interview Russell Burke, Professor of Herpetology at Hofstra University, Founder of The Jamaica Bay Terrapin Research group, and a passionate advocate for these unique and vitally important creatures.