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** Archived Article - please check for current information. **

March 27, 2006Legislation to benefit diamondback terrapins

Legislation that will benefit the protection of diamondback terrapins was recently passed by the South Carolina General Assembly.

The bill, now enacted into state law, revamps a previous law which was set back in 2000 and rescinds the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) authority to issue permits for those interested in harvesting and marketing terrapins. The bill also provides that “it is unlawful to take or possess diamondback terrapins for a commercial purpose,” and states that a person may obtain no more than two terrapins for a non-commercial purpose. Increased penalties for violators were also enacted.

For more information, contact Dale Theiling, assistant director of the DNR’s Marine Resources Division Office of Fisheries Management, at (843) 953-9390 in Charleston, or send an e-mail to theilingd@dnr.sc.gov.

Female diamondback terrapin on the move

Diamondback terrapins occupy estuarine environments, tidal channels, and marshes from Massachusetts all the way to parts of coastal Texas. A 20-year biological assessment of diamondback terrapins in four tidal creeks near the Kiawah River has noted a population decline since the early 1990s. According to Marilyn Blizard, a frontrunner for the conservation group that has formed on Kiawah Island to help protect the diamondback terrapins, “The populations inhabiting Terrapin Creek on the Kiawah River have dwindled from a plentiful number to one single terrapin, and this is a cause for concern.” The status of terrapin populations elsewhere in the state is unknown.

“The enactment of the diamondback terrapin legislation is not only a good deed for South Carolina, but other states, like Maryland, are now looking at the path we are taking to help protect the terrapin populations,” Blizard said.

Until 2000, an open commercial season to fish for the terrapins existed, although DNR has not documented a commercial fishery since the mid 1970s, according to Theiling.

In earlier decades, a long-term interest in the commercial harvest of diamondback terrapins for their edible qualities likely led to a decrease in population status. Commercial fishermen used gill nets to catch the terrapins, but with an increase in bycatch, the interest in fishing for the diamondback terrapin waned. In 2000, the DNR was granted responsibility to issue permits for commercial fishermen wanting to harvest and market diamondback terrapins. Theiling noted, however, that the permits have never been requested, and one has never been issued. With the recent legislation, the harvestable opportunity for diamondback terrapins has been taken away, a positive step in the species’ protection.

Although the commercial interest in diamondback terrapins seems to have subsided, other factors have generated a greater need for their protection. Increasing concern for terrapin populations mounted among local conservationists over growing coastal development, degradation of terrapin habitat, incidental catch in recreational crab pots, and the commercial pet trade. A Diamondback Terrapin Working Group was formed in 2004 with the support of DNR biologist DuBose Griffin, and locally, an active group on Kiawah Island spearheaded a campaign to rewrite the legislation that has been recently enacted. The group also distributed bycatch reduction devices for crab traps to Kiawah Island, John’s Island, and Beaufort residents, and sponsored a “Save the Diamondback Terrapin” program.

- Written by Anna Martin -

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