Biology Community Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Shell Game

Dr. Russell Burke demonstrates a turtle excluder device.

Biology Professor Russell Burke, state conservation officials and environmental advocates celebrated World Turtle Day© by demonstrating a device that prevents diamondback terrapins from being caught in crab pots.

The tool, called a turtle excluder device or TED, was touted at a press conference at Seatuck Environmental Center in Islip to raise awareness about a new state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) rule requiring the device for crabbing operations.

TEDs work by preventing diamondback terrapins from entering crab pots in search of food. They have required TEDs on all funnel entrances of commercial crab pots set in creeks, coves, rivers, tributaries, and near-shore harbors of the Marine & Coastal District.

“We know that commercial harvest has occurred in New York, and that terrapins have been drowned as by-catch in crab traps here,” Burke said at the press conference with DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, and representatives from Seatuck Environmental Association, The Nature Conservancy, and Save the Great South Bay.

“Terrapin populations are extremely vulnerable to this sort of mortality. Populations have been quickly and seriously damaged if even a fairly small fraction of the adult females are killed.  The new regulations will close these legal loopholes and help terrapin conservation.  With these new regulations, New York is joining other states that have already moved to protect this species.”

Diamondback terrapins live in brackish waters associated with the lower Hudson River, Long Island Sound, Peconic Bay, and the coastal embayments along the south shore of Long Island. In 2015, the New York State Wildlife Action Plan identified diamondback terrapins as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need due to documented threats from habitat loss, nest predation, and incidental capture from fishing-related operations. In September 2017, DEC announced it was adopting regulations to eliminate commercial harvest of diamondback terrapins and add the species to the list of native turtles with no open season.

Terrapin protectors: Byron Young, Retired DEC Biologist; John Turner, Conservation Policy Advocate for the Seatuck Environmental Association; James J. Gilmore, Director of DEC Division of Marine Resources; Carl LoBue, New York Oceans Program Director for The Nature Conservancy; Enrico Nardone, Executive Director of the Seatuck Environmental Association; Professor Burke; and Kim McKown, DEC Fisheries Biologist II.

“Diamondback terrapins are one of our coastline’s most iconic species,” said Commissioner Seggos. “Over the past year, DEC has taken steps to stop the harvest of this species by declaring an end to its open hunting season. The turtle excluder devices not only protect the diamondback terrapins from being caught in crab pots, but also allow New York’s baymen to harvest blue crabs and other crab species that support livelihoods of the men and women working New York’s waters.”

Burke is considered a foremost expert on terrapins and urban ecology. This summer he will divide his time between Gilgo Beach in Suffolk County and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where he works every summer with Hofstra students studying diamondback terrapins and their nesting habits. To help boost the population, Dr. Burke and his students dig up terrapin eggs and study hatch rates in a controlled environment. At Gilgo Beach, Dr. Burke will be covering nests and putting up notices for beachgoers and jet skiers, asking them to be mindful of the terrapins that may be resting on the water during the summer nesting season.

“Diamondback terrapins are declining in nearly every part of their range, and this is true in New York as well,” Burke said.  “This is really unfortunate because terrapins are harmless, attractive animals that play important roles in the stability of the salt marshes that protect our shorelines. Although terrapins could live in salt marshes from New York City east along the south shore of Long Island and the Long Island Sound, our knowledge of New York terrapin populations is really limited to just a few places where research has been done.  Hofstra University faculty and students have been studying terrapins in New York City’s Jamaica Bay for 20 years, and the result is the most well understood population in the state.”

The Seatuck Environmental Association provided 5,000 Teds to the DEC for distribution to baymen. A small number of TEDs will be made available to crab pot fishers that have reported blue crab landings within the last two years. They will be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis at no cost.  For more information contact the DEC at 631-444-0429.

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