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Creatures and Critters

On the Diamondback Track

Narrator: What must be done to preserve a healthy and viable population of diamondback terrapins in the Chesapeake? From colonial times until the 20th century, large numbers of delectable diamondbacks harvested from the Bay were shipped round the world to grace dining tables. Today, the embattled diamondback, Maryland's state reptile, faces an uncertain future. Beaches and marshy areas where they nest are being gobbled up by developments and shored up with bulkheads. Predators like dogs, foxes, raccoons and skunks are digging up their nests to eat the eggs. Outdated crab pots are snaring them.

At Horsehead Wetlands Center, with these concerns in mind, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening announced the formation of a diamondback terrapin task force to assess the status of diamondbacks and recommend steps to preserve them.

Governor Glendening: As we understand it, there may be a real problem in terms of the terrapins disappearing. What we're going to do, and you all asked for it, is we're going to do a serious study about the turtle, find out whether it is declining, and whether it is a serious problem.

Narrator: With such a long history in the Chesapeake, you would think hard facts on diamondbacks would already exist to provide guidance. Marguerite Whilden, program manager for the Fisheries Service Conservation and Stewardship program:

Marguerite Whilden: Probably the most significant thing about the diamondback terrapin is that we didn't know that much about it. At one point it was the most significant fishery in the Chesapeake. At the turn of the century it had been fished out. So, the more we started working with students and the general public about the diamondback terrapin, we started getting questions like, "Well, how many of them are there out there? I've never seen them. Are they still in this creek?" The fact is, we have no clue how many of them are out there. There's not much of a fishery at this point, therefore, we can't really use fishery dependent data.

Narrator: There may not be fishery dependent data, but there is a resource – Willem Roosenberg. He grew up on the Patuxent, and as a graduate student, began a long‑term, independent study of diamondbacks in the summer of 1987. Fifteen years later, now a tenured professor at Ohio University, he has a backlog of information that offers the beginnings of a framework on which to construct a sound conservation and management strategy for the species.

Willem Roosenberg: We seem to have a fairly robust population in the Middle Patuxent. However, there have been indications of decline over the past few years. The first years that I started working here we had many, many more large, adult females, and our population appears to be becoming biased towards juveniles, and that has me concerned.

The increasing amount of shoreline development is decreasing the amount of available habitat for the species. The increased use of fishing gear such as crab pots and eel pots and other gear that remains submerged for prolong periods of time are a source of considerable mortality for all age classes. Also the increasing amount of boat traffic is a problem for terrapins. The number one source of mortality that we've been able to identify for the adult females is being hit by motor boats.

I think all of these factors combined are increasing the rates of adult mortality to the point where it potentially threatens the population.


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