Many of us may have found colorful crab trap markers washed up on our bay beaches. Perhaps we hung them on sheds or garages, creating a sort of shore folk-art tableau. There is something irresistible about these colorful buoys; tangled with rope and eelgrass, their incongruous colors are a vivid contrast with the subtler tones of the coast.
But how many people consider the number of diamondback terrapin drownings they represent? These markers once floated above a commercial crab trap – now forgotten, or abandoned due to accident, storms or a line cut by boat propellers. Left in the water, they become a death trap for scavenging terrapins, lured in by leftover bait or crabs and unable to escape. Called “ghost traps,” they continue catching and killing terrapins – as well as crabs, fish, eels, and other marine life – for many years. According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, as many as 20 percent of all set traps are lost every year.
During nesting season in late spring/early summer many terrapins are killed by vehicles as the females leave bays and creeks to lay their eggs, crisscrossing streets in search of suitable nesting areas. The bloody, cracked carapaces that litter shore roads are disturbing, but they are the tip of the iceberg. Just along the New Jersey coast, the number of terrapins drowning in traps in our bays, lagoons and creeks is 14,000 to 15,000 annually, according to the Wetlands Institute. But crab traps don’t have to be “abandoned” to kill terrapins. If commercial and casual-use crabbers don’t check their traps often, terrapins enter these traps, and, since they don’t have gills like crabs, they will drown.
In New Jersey, commercial-style crab traps that are not used in open waters are required to have terrapin excluder devices installed. (These devices, adapted in the 1990s by Roger Wood at the Wetlands Institute, are called BRDs – by-catch reduction devices.) Designed to reduce accidental trapping, they prevent terrapins from getting in the traps. Yet a large number of commercial-style traps used today still do not have these simple attachments. The orange plastic excluders can be easily retrofitted to older traps, do not impact crab catches and are free at many bait and tackle stores. The state Division of Fish and Wildlife considers diamondback terrapins a “species of special concern.” Recreational crabbers can help protect them by using traps that prevent their further demise.
Much like finding an empty terrapin shell, picking up one of these brightly colored markers is a bittersweet experience. The initial excitement is quickly tempered by the realization that somewhere out there terrapins are dying.
Leslee Ganss lives on the edge of a salt marsh in Eagleswood and has been involved in local terrapin conservation efforts for two decades.