In September, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced the adoption of regulations to eliminate commercial harvest of diamondback terrapins and added the species to the list of native turtles with no open season.
The closure on harvest will go into effect beginning May 1, 2018.
Also in September, Jamaica Bay Guardian and Littoral Society Northeast Chapter Director Don Riepe pulled up an illegal crab trap that illustrated in terrible terms one of the primary reasons diamonback terrapin populations are at historic lows. The trap contained 46 dead diamondbacks.
The American Littoral Society has been working for years, both in New Jersey and New York, for a ban on harvesting diamondback terrapin. Those efforts paid off last year in New Jersey, when the state Department of Environmental Protection established an indefinite moratorium on taking the terrapins. Now New York has followed suit.
Northern diamondbacks are unique in that they are the only known species of turtle to live exclusively in brackish waters. A reptile with a patterned brown, black and sometimes orange and yellow carapace, they have been classified as a of special concern because they are facing a heightened risk of extinction -- primarily as the result of human related activities.
The estimated terrapin population for Jamaica Bay is half of what it was 10 years ago. Many are killed by vehicles, but they are also being affected by the decline of marsh lands and over harvesting.
“At one point, we were losing about 40 acres of marsh a year,” according to Riepe. Originally about 10,000 acres, the bay’s salt marshes have shrunk by more than 60 percent since 1951 and make up less than 1,000 acres today.
Diamondback terrapin play a crucial role in the health of wetlands. Terrapins feed predominately on periwinkle snails. Periwinkles feed widely on salt marsh cordgrass, which acts as an environmental engineer for eastern wetlands. In short: without terrapins, the periwinkle population would grow unchecked and decimate the grasses that help maintain the marsh.
Since 2011 the Littoral Society has also been working to restore marshland in Jamaica Bay. That effort isn't simply to protect terrapin habitat, but also because coastal wetlands help reduce flooding and the effects of storms.