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In all, 82 diamondback terrapins were trapped in this commercial crab trap and drowned. (Courtesy Steve Ahern)

By Maddy Vitale

Environmentalists Steve and Susan Ahern received a disturbing call Memorial Day from the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol.

It was 11:30 a.m. when the phone rang.

“Beach Patrol said someone walking along the beach down at 11th Street in Sea Isle had called them and said there were approximately 70 dead diamondback terrapins and also a crab trap next to them,” Steve Ahern explained Wednesday.

The Aherns contacted The Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor immediately, then went down to the beach to see for themselves.

The death toll was worse than they were originally told. There were 82 dead terrapins and an abandoned commercial trap that measured about four feet. It was devastating news for the Aherns, who have dedicated their retirement years to making sure turtles have proper nesting places and safe routes around the city.

“Other than being killed on the roads, this is the other prime way that terrapins are killed,” Steve Ahern said.

They wondered who did it. They knew it would be impossible to know for sure. The Wetlands Institute contacted the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife and the agency is doing an investigation, Ahern said.

“This time of year, when the turtles are mating, they tend to be in packs,” Ahern said.

Ahern believes that the turtles followed each other into the trap to feed on bait and drowned.

Their deaths could have been prevented with a contraption called an excluder that, by law, is supposed to be on commercial traps, Ahern explained.

This device, an excluder, could have saved the terrapins. (Wetlandsinstitute.org)

“The thing about the crab trap is it didn’t have an excluder,” Ahern said. “All commercial traps are supposed to have one.”

An excluder allows for crabs to enter the trap but prevents a lot of the turtles from going in, he said.

“This highlights the problems with the crab traps. This was certainly preventable if there was an excluder on it,” he said. “The excluders are free at any bait shop. They are easy to install, and they do so much good.”  

In addition to not having an excluder, the trap did not have any buoy or identification on it.

“I followed up with the Wetlands Institute today and the state came down and measured the turtles,” Ahern said.

This is prime season for diamondback terrapins to be spotted.

They lay eight to 12 eggs at a time and they come out two to three times during a nesting season from June 1 to July 15.  

“The turtles did start to come out and today there was one crossing Central Avenue. I would assume they will come out in force by the weekend,” Ahern said, adding that he rescued the turtle.

He offered advice to anyone who spots a terrapin on the roadway or elsewhere that appears to need a bit of help.

A big “Turtle Crossing” sign reminds motorists to be on the lookout for diamondback terrapins.

“Turtles need to continue in the direction they are going. If they are going to lay eggs, they are leaving the marsh,” Ahern said. “If they are done laying their eggs, they are heading back to the marsh. If you decide for them they will come right back out.”

He cautioned anyone who helps the terrapins to do it safely while venturing out into traffic.

As part of their turtle conservation efforts, the Aherns, with the help of volunteers, have built two nesting boxes that give terrapins a safe place to lay their eggs. The boxes measure 12 feet by 28 feet.

Both nesting boxes overlook the marshlands behind the Sea Isle City branch of the Cape May County Library at 48th Street and Central Avenue.

“We put the final touches on them with the gates and the doors Friday night,” Ahern said.

Some repairs had to be made recently after damage was caused by a vehicle that struck one of the boxes. The city put up barriers to prevent that from happening again, Ahern said.

The roadways are also major culprits in the deaths of terrapins.

Cape May County has installed fencing on both sides of Sea Isle City Boulevard to prevent the turtles from crawling into the road and being run over.

Ahern added, “Both sides of the roadway are secure as they could get.”

The turtles found dead Monday at 11th Street and the beach. (Courtesy Steve Ahern)
This is the turtle Steve Ahern rescued from Central Avenue and placed in one of two nesting boxes behind the library. (Courtesy Steve Ahern)