Md. Officials Aim To Halt Harvest Of Prized Terrapins

The diamondback terrapin, Maryland's state reptile, is considered key to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
The diamondback terrapin, Maryland's state reptile, is considered key to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Deep in the tidal marshes of the Chesapeake Bay, demand for a five-inch reptile is helping to narrow the U.S. trade deficit with China.

The diamondback terrapin is under siege from global turtle traders in East Asia, who are feeding South China's newfound appetite for expensive turtle soup. With markets in Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia depleted, China's booming economy and expatriates and immigrants in New York City are vacuuming up the terrapins of Maryland, one of just four states that allow commercial harvests.

Now, after five years of studies and a false start that further decimated the population, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Maryland lawmakers are on course to stop commercial harvesting of the beloved state reptile.

"It's an international devouring of natural resources," O'Malley said in an interview. "History has unfortunately shown that we are equally capable of destroying the planet as we are of preserving it."

The Department of Natural Resources is expected next week to propose a moratorium on terrapin harvests that would take effect in May. If the terrapins make a comeback, harvests could be reinstated. Two bills pending in the General Assembly take a harder line, proposing to stop harvesting permanently.

"We're saying, 'Enough is enough,' " said Del. Virginia P. Clagett (D-Anne Arundel), who sponsored the House bill. "Closure is the thing we want. The Chinese palate is really in for turtles. We're just losing them."

Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) has sponsored a companion measure.

How many terrapins are left in the bay is hard to estimate, environmental officials say. Watermen reported a catch of about 10,500 turtles last year, the first year they had to file reports. But most say the number caught is grossly underreported.

A recent study by terrapin expert Willem Roosenburg of Ohio University showed a 75 percent decline in reproductive-age females in the Patuxent River in the past decade.

Terrapins, named for the diamond patterns on their shells, hug coasts from Maine to Texas but thrive in the brackish waters of the Chesapeake, where saltwater and freshwater mix in estuaries and marshes. Virginia and several other states have issued protective legislation to limit commercial harvests. But Maryland has resisted until now in a nod to the watermen's industry.

Terrapins are considered essential to the bay's ecosystem. They eat snails that destroy the bay's marsh grasses. But they have been threatened by human consumption several times, starting in the 1700s, when Colonial settlers discovered their meat for sherry-laced stew.

By the 1920s, Maryland's terrapins were all but depleted, and the turtle fad faded with the Great Depression. The reptiles had replenished themselves over much of the last century -- until China's economy exploded in the 1990s, as did disposable income and a taste for delicacies. Turtles have an added spiritual appeal for the Chinese -- they are symbols of longevity.

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