Let’s begin by stating what a diamondback terrapin is.  I have found many Floridians are not familiar with the animal.  It is a turtle.  A turtle in the family Emydidae which includes the pond turtles, such as cooters and sliders.  The big difference between terrapins and the other emydid turtles is their preference for salt water.  They are not marine turtles but rather estuarine – they like brackish water.

The diamond in the marsh. The diamondback terrapin.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

 

Their haunt are the salt marshes and mangroves of the state.  Their range extends from Massachusetts down the east coast and covering all of the Gulf of Mexico over to Brownsville Texas.  There are seven subspecies of the animal within that range.  Five of those live in Florida and three only live in Florida.  They are more abundant, and well known, in the Chesapeake Bay area where they are the mascot of the University of Maryland.  In Florida they seem to be more secretive and hidden.  Encounters with them are rare and there has been concern about their status for years.  Though researchers are not 100% sure on their population size, it was felt that more conservation measures were needed.

 

Ten years ago, the issue with all turtles in the state was the illegal harvest for the food trade.  All sorts of species were being captured and sent to markets overseas.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) stepped in and set possession quotas on many species of Florida turtles.  For terrapins, the number was two.  For some, like the Suwannee Cooter, there was a no possession rule.

Drowned terrapins in a derelict crab trap in the Florida panhandle. (photo: Molly O’Connor)

 

There has also been concern with incidental capture of terrapins in crab traps.  These turtles have been known to swim into the traps and drown.  In the Chesapeake Bay area, they have found as many as 40 dead turtles in one trap.  Not only is this bad for the turtles, but it is also bad for the crab fisherman because high numbers of dead turtles in the trap means no crabs.  Studies began to develop some sort of excluder device that would keep terrapins out, but allow crabs in.  Dr. Roger Wood developed a rectangle shaped wire excluder now called a By-Catch Reduction Device (BRD) that reduced the terrapin capture by 80-90% but had no significant effect on the crab catch.  That was what they were looking for.  This BRD has been required on crab traps up there for years.

 

What about Florida?

 

Studies using the BRD were also conducted here with the same results, but the BRD was not required.  Incidental capture in crab traps does occur here but not to the extent it was happening in the Chesapeake and FWC wanted to hold off for more science before enacting the rule.  BRDs were available for those who wanted them, but not required.  This past December (2021) that changed.

This orange plastic rectangle is a Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD) used to keep terrapins out of crab traps – but not crabs.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

In recent years there has been another issue with harvesting terrapins for the pet trade.  With this, and other conservation concerns for this turtle, FWC developed a new rule for terrapins at their December 2021 meeting.

  1. The possession limit for terrapins has dropped from 2 to 0 – there is a no-take rule for this animal beginning March 1, 2022. Collection for scientific research will still be allowed with a valid collecting permit from the FWC.  Those who currently have two or less terrapins in their possession as pets may keep them but must obtain a no cost personal possession permit to do so by May 31, 2022.  Those who have terrapins within an education center may keep them but must obtain a no cost exhibit permit by May 31, 2022.
  2. Recreational crab traps will require the BRD device by March 1, 2023. You have a year.  Those in the Pensacola area can contact me for these.  I have a case of them I am willing to provide to the public.

Again, studies have shown that these BRDs do not significantly impact the crab catch.  Crabs can turn sideways and still enter the traps.  But reducing incidental capture of terrapins will hopefully increase their numbers in our state.  For information on how to obtain the needed permits visit FWC.

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