Community Efforts Help Restore Diamondback Terrapin Population on LBI

By SANDRA WEYANT | Jun 28, 2017
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Chickens aren’t the only animals attempting to cross the road to get to the other side. The population of diamondback terrapins, medium-sized turtles native to brackish coastal waters, has dwindled throughout the last decade, but local organizations and community members are working to restore and protect the species on Long Beach Island.

Each year, many factors contribute to the decline of the terrapins in New Jersey, such as females being struck by motor vehicles while trying to find a secure nesting spot or adults getting trapped in commercial-style crab pots. Predators – fish crows, raccoons and foxes – often raid nests and eat the eggs. Crows are even known to stalk female terrapins, waiting for them to release the eggs.

Young female terrapins sometimes nest in unsafe environments, leaving the eggs susceptible to predators and human interference. Construction sites and removal of natural bay beaches have left the terrapins searching for new areas to lay eggs, and new homes with docks and bulkheads have taken over the turtles’ natural habitat. Confused as to where to lay their eggs, females head toward the ocean to find sand, but terrapins cannot survive in the ocean due to high salinity. Unlike sea turtles, diamondback terrapins live in the bay and marsh creeks, and can survive only in a mixture of fresh and salt water.

Advancements in terrapin protection are on the rise worldwide, nationwide and statewide, and each member of a particular community can help to spread awareness and take action. Kathy Lacey, a former resident of Loveladies on Long Beach Island and founder of the Terrapin Nesting Project formed in 2011, devotes her time to relocating terrapin nests to safe hatcheries in an effort to protect the species. Even though Lacey got married and moved to Pennsylvania with her husband, Tom, Long Beach Island will always be her “natural habitat” and favorite place to be.

Ever since she was a young girl, she remembers spending every summer on Long Beach Island and seeing the terrapins swimming in the bay and nesting on bay beaches. “I grew up with these (terrapins). When I got married, I married a turtle man, and I’ve always been a turtle person, and I’ve always had turtles,” Lacey said. “I’d see them nesting. We used to have bigger bay beaches. Now, there is limited sand for them to nest, and people are realizing there is something going on with the turtles, but they don’t know what to do, and that’s why I’m here.”

An animal lover through and through, Lacey decided to take matters into her own hands. Backed and funded by organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Garden Club of Long Beach Island, The Turtle Conservancy and, most recently, Garden State Tortoise, she now has a strong foundation to ensure that terrapins on Long Beach Island will be monitored and protected as much as humanly possible.

But what is most important is the community involvement. Lacey spreads her positivity and knowledge about terrapins everywhere she goes and never wastes an opportunity to educate the public. As an environmental science teacher for more than 30 years, educating comes naturally to Lacey. She has always used her personal animals for a hands-on learning experience for her students and particularly enjoys teaching young children.

“Turtles are very easy to use in a classroom. Nobody ever really has allergies to them. When you see the light in a child’s eye … you put an animal in their hands and they really understand, there is nothing quite like it. They will be followers for life,” Lacey said.

Children are fascinated by animals and eager to learn at young ages. Lacey even has a designated “turtle girl,” a 12-year-old named Grace Crimi who is her neighbor on the Island during the summer months. Lacey met Grace and her mother, Tracey, when she accidentally trespassed onto their beach property while tracking a female terrapin. By the next day, Grace and Tracey Crimi became volunteers, and their backyard is now the terrapin infirmary.

Similar to the light Lacey describes seeing in children’s eyes, many people who work with Lacey can see it in her eyes, as well, which is why anytime she needs assistance, someone is always available to help. Dottie Reynolds, another resident of Long Beach Island, Barnegat Light councilwoman and president of the Friends of the Southern Ocean County Animal Shelter, rescues stray cats, and now she has joined forces with the Terrapin Nesting Project.

Local landscaper John Kline donated 30 yards of sand to fill Lacey’s hatcheries, free of charge. Recently, Lacey was in need of sand shovelers, and within one day, Chris Leone, her newest partner and owner of Garden State Tortoise, came with his wife from Galloway Township and brought shovels and rakes. Other LBI residents and volunteers showed up, and the sand was taken care of within hours.

“It was like sparring shovels out there. There were so many people – husbands and wives and children. It was incredible. The generosity continues, and it’s always a step further,” Lacey said.

Kathy Maturne, owner of a pool service business, often finds hatchlings stuck in skimmers and filters and retrieves them and brings them to Lacey to care for. “I’ve got everybody all over doing this,” Lacey said.

A lot has changed for the better in the past five years when it comes to community support. When Lacey created the TNP in 2011, she had 13 volunteers and, by her second year, that number increased to 150. In the same time period, she opened up two hatcheries with two 10-foot by 10-foot cages with the help of a local family who offered to build them for her. People have even requested to have sand delivered to their properties to create more options for secure terrapin nesting sites.

“Everyone was becoming terrapin-aware. We were putting out posters, and real estate agents were even putting up signs in their rentals. We are strictly volunteer, and people just care,” Lacey said.

After the devastation and destruction from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the Garden Club of LBI donated money to help Lacey recover from the damages, and she expanded the Terrapin Nesting Project to the Holgate section of the Island, where “1,300 eggs were successfully incubated, hatched and released by the end of 2013,” according to her website. Her team of volunteers proved that, even in the toughest times, working together always pays off.

Until this year, New Jersey was allowing terrapins to be harvested in fall and winter, but now the species is protected under a bill signed by Gov. Chris Christie that removed these animals from the game species list. The New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Endangered and Non-Game Species Program will manage terrapins, and there are strict rules as to who can handle them and relocate their nesting sites.

Lacey and her devoted volunteers are more than qualified to do the job. Lacey explains that in order to extract the nests, which can carry anywhere from four to 20 eggs, one must use bare hands.

“You have to be delicate, and you have to do it in the first 24 hours because the embryo attaches to the egg. You take a chance when you pull them. Eventually, I want to get away from using the hatchery and have the process be more natural, with the girls nesting in sand, that we don’t have to pull the eggs,” Lacey said.

Once a female drops her first egg, she goes into a trance-like state. When she is completely finished delivering the rest of the eggs, she does what Lacey has coined the “happy dance,” a movement that involves kicking and digging her back feet into the sand to bury and disguise her nesting spot.

“You’d be happy, too, if you dropped that many eggs,” Lacey joked.

Lacey notches the turtles, and weighs and measures them to ensure they are in good health and also to monitor them in future years. She has all of the records from the beginning for every terrapin she has rescued and released (approximately 7,128 and still counting).

Along with relocating nests, there are other protective measures to keep the terrapins safe. Lacey explained that she and her volunteers cover the nests with baskets and apply monofilament line on top to keeps birds out. She also equips the baskets with sonic boxes to keep raccoons away, plus they’re solarized to fend off foxes and other potential predators.

2017 is a milestone year for Lacey, who is already beginning to experience the rewards from all of her hard work. “I’m having my first-year turtles coming back, which is really early. The females that nested and hatched and we released into the bay in 2011 … I thought in eight or so years, I will know if they made it or not. So, the cycle is complete and it’s really exciting. It wasn’t just one or two turtles, either. It was at least 60 percent of the girls we had nesting are my first-year babies, so what we are doing is working,” Lacey said.

As an experienced and enthusiastic teacher, Lacey credits education as the key to her success with this entire project.

“I’m doing a presentation at a yacht club down at the south end (of the Island); I’m doing a talk at the historical society. Every time you get up in front of a group of people, you hit another 50 or 100 people, and then they go and tell more people. Word of mouth really helps with this sort of thing because when you live in a beautiful place like this, you want to protect the wildlife. I have people of all ages getting involved to help,” she said.

Through being visible, and through interviews and presentations, Lacey is confident her message will continue to spread for years to come. The Terrapin Nesting Project also has an Adopt-A-Nest program, and once hatchlings are ready to be released into the salt marshes, sponsors can come and be a part of the experience.

Though word of mouth has seemed to work wonders for educating people about the reptiles, in today’s times, social media plays a big part in connecting the community and notifying them of new events and terrapin sightings. Lacey is not fond of “twitting” as she calls it – she’s strictly “turtles, not technology” – but Jill Snyder, one of her volunteers, is dedicated to posting on the TNP’s social platforms. Everyone is tuned into “terrapin time.” The more people who are attracted to a project, the better it will be. This year, Lacey has marine biologists interested in the TNP and other people who have worked with sea turtles. “We’re attracting an incredible level of intelligence,” she said.

Terrapin awareness has increased exponentially, and people now know what to do. The majority of people have basic knowledge about how to help turtles cross roads to nest and know not to touch the eggs. Lacey says there is a position for everyone at the TNP, even people with little to no experience. If someone is uncomfortable handling the animals, he or she can patrol the roads for sightings or volunteer to be on hatchery watch because as soon as hatchlings emerge, they need to be removed from the sun.

“Every little thing means an awful lot. If you have an hour, I’ll put you to work. If you have a week, I’ll put you to work,” Lacey said.

Recently, Lacey witnessed two cars pull off the road to assist a terrapin that was crossing the street. “I thought, what an educated group of people. This is what it’s all about,” she said. Road signs in the area caution motorists to pay attention to their surroundings as pregnant terrapins are searching for nesting sites during mid-to-end of summer.

In the future, Lacey wants to expand the Terrapin Nesting Project to other areas of the Jersey Shore, where she hopes more turtle fanatics will be there to greet her.

“I love what I do. I totally believe in this, and I love all of the people I work with. Jill Snyder, Lisa Dolan, Jean Deery, Mimi and Katie Purzychi, Tracey and Grace Crimi (and so many more) … without these core volunteers, I’d be lost. They have been with me for years and are the reason for the TNP’s success. There wouldn’t be a project without them. This is my giveback for surviving cancer, and wow, I’ve never had so much fun in my life,” Lacey said.

Come out of your shells and make friends with the folks from the Terrapin Nesting Project. If you are interested in volunteering or donating or would like to learn more about diamondback terrapins, visit terrapinnestingproject.org. Don’t forget to be on the lookout for turtles as you head to the beach this summer.

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