World Turtle Day
Hofstra University professor Russell Burke holds Bertha, one of the endangered turtles, at the World Turtle Day presentation at Seatuck last week


World Turtle Day


ISLIP—In conjunction with the internationally recognized World Turtle Day, on May 23, Seatuck Environmental Association, along with representatives from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Hofstra University, The Nature Conservancy, and Save the Great South Bay, demonstrated the DEC’s recently required terrapin excluder devices. DEC began requiring the devices for crabbing operations in New York’s marine and coastal districts to reduce the bycatch of diamondback terrapins in March.

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, the 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. The final diamondback terrapin season closed on April 30, with licenses expiring on May 4. 

Jim Gilmore, DEC director of marine resources, said the most resistance to the measures came from the commercial fishing industry, adding that representatives from the industry often state that any sort of regulations could put them out of business. Gilmore then said individual crab fishermen approached him saying that they found turtles in the older traps on a regular basis. 

Russell Burke, a biology professor at Hofstra University, said that at least some crab fishermen have changed their minds about the new mandatory traps—being that they prevent the trapping of turtles and other larger marine life— since there is more room for crabs. 

Populations of diamondback terrapins plummeted in the early 20th century, due to unregulated harvest for turtle soup, according to the DEC. After a rebound throughout most of the last century, new declines in diamondback terrapin populations along the Atlantic Coast led to the closure of commercial harvest in all states in the terrapins’ range, with the exception of New York. 

In addition to closing New York’s open season, the diamondback terrapin has been added to the list of native turtles to protect all life stages of the species from being collected from the wild. The DEC says it will continue to evaluate and pursue additional actions to improve the status of the diamondback terrapin populations in New York. 

Marshall Brown, president and co-founder of Save the Great South Bay, also pointed out that terrapin turtles feed on the periwinkle snails that devour the marshes, which protect against flooding during storms. 

Burke agreed that it’s important to “preserve the top predators” because they keep everything in order. Burke also discourages people from taking turtles out of the wild and keeping them as pets. He admitted, having grown up on Long Island, that he had done this, like so many other children. 

In addition, Burke brought along a special guest: Bertha, a live terrapin that, unfortunately, can’t be released into the wild because for years, she was kept as a pet, where she was housed and poorly fed, and as a result, developed bone disease. 

Even moving turtles from one place to another can be harmful because they will instinctively return home, and could be hurt or killed in the process. Burke said he would never ask people to help a turtle cross the road if there was any chance of putting themselves in danger. He did add, however, that he has moved hundreds of turtles in the past. 

American Tortoise Rescue, a nonprofit organization established in 1990 for the protection of all tortoise and turtle species, founded World Turtle Day in 2000 to increase respect and knowledge for the world’s oldest creatures. While these animals have been around for 200,000,000 years, they are rapidly disappearing due to smuggling, the exotic food industry, habitat destruction, global warming and the cruel pet trade, according to the DEC. Biologists and other experts predict the disappearance of turtles and tortoises within the next 50 years.