Council OKs plan to keep turtles from crab traps

A Diamond Back Terrapin is shown in this A Diamond Back Terrapin is shown in this Aug. 8, 2008 file photo. Photo Credit: Newsday/Daniel Goodrich

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A state marine advisory council has endorsed a plan to require fishermen to retrofit crab traps to prevent catching terrapin turtles, even as state law allows licensed trappers to take unlimited numbers of turtles to sell for food.

At a meeting of the Marine Resources Advisory Counsel earlier this month, committee members endorsed a new plan to require a device called a terrapin excluder, a small opening that would prevent the turtles from attempting to enter crab traps seeking food. The traps are sometimes left in estuaries for days, and turtles that go in can't get out.

Council members and others said the device was needed because the turtles that get caught in the traps often drown, even though a recent DEC survey of blue-claw crab traps did not turn up any turtles. With the council's blessing, the DEC is expected to approve requirement of the excluder device this year. Advocates say it's needed.

"I've seen it," said Charles Witek, a member of the council who backed the proposal, saying he'd seen one crab trap in Amityville with as many as a dozen dead terrapins in it -- something the excluder would have prevented. Retrofitting traps with the device would cost less than $2 each, possibly as little as $1.49, he said.

But public discussion of the terrapins at the meeting, and specifically the availability of a license to harvest turtles, caught the attention of some lobstermen, including one who applied for the $10 license two weeks ago. Only two licenses have been issued in the past two years, with no reported harvest, the DEC said.

"That's the first time anybody heard about them," said Robert Zickmund, a longtime lobsterman from Mount Sinai who said he has been researching alternatives because of the decline of lobsters in Long Island Sound. As he awaits approval of his license, he said he is exploring the market.

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"I have a couple of guys finding out if they're worth any money," he said. "You could sell them for food or take them home and eat them."

Lisa King, a Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman, said people who have a valid terrapin turtle license can take unlimited numbers of the turtles within the season, which opens Aug. 1 and continues through April 30. Only turtles with shells greater than 4 inches and less than 7 inches can be taken during that period.

There is no limit on the number of turtle licenses that can be issued, she said. The state has no data on the terrapin turtle population.

Witek on Friday said the idea of a virtually unlimited terrapin season "seems a little foolish."

"I think it should be changed," he said. "Terrapin soup was one of those 1900 delicacies. Maybe that time has passed."

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But a representative at the Hong Kong Supermarket in New York City's Chinatown said live turtles remain a sale item. Soft-shell turtles are selling for $6.99 to $7.99 a pound, the representative said.

Capture of terrapins is allowed only by use of a dip net, hand capture, Dec-approved seine net or other trap "capable of capturing the diamondback terrapin alive."

King acknowledged that a recent DEC survey of blue-claw crab traps did not turn up any terrapins. "The project was not designed to catch terrapins, but to see if there was a difference in the size or number of blue crabs caught in traps with and without terrapin excluder devices," King noted.

King dismissed the notion that protecting turtles that are available for nearly unlimited harvest appeared contradictory. "Many species of wildlife are both protected and available for some degree of harvest," she said, noting the size and seasonal turtle restrictions and that "very few people are licensed" to take them.

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