Dead diamondback terrapins litter the 11th Street beach in Sea Isle City over the Memorial Day weekend. (Courtesy Katie Steele)

By Donald Wittkowski

New Jersey’s environmental agency was unable to determine what caused the deaths of more than 80 diamondback terrapins that were found on the beach in Sea Isle City over the Memorial Day weekend.

The investigation by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish and Wildlife has been closed “due to insufficient evidence to determine responsibility for the deaths of the diamondback terrapins,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the agency.

Hajna said the turtle carcasses and an abandoned crab trap found nearby on the beach at 11th Street in Sea Isle were removed by the time a state conservation officer had arrived at the scene to investigate.

Without any of the dead turtles left to examine, the officer could not determine the cause of death, Hajna added.

Altogether, 82 dead diamondback terrapins littered the beach a few yards from the large crab trap, authorities said.

Shortly after the turtles were found on Memorial Day, environmentalist Steve Ahern, a founder of the organization Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue, told that he suspected the diamondbacks swam into the trap to feed on the bait, couldn’t get out and drowned.

Sea Isle restaurateur Mike Monichetti, however, believes the turtles were killed by a series of powerful coastal storms that left them exposed while they were burrowed in the marshlands during their winter hibernation.

“Those turtles froze to death during the severe winter,” Monichetti, the owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant, said in an interview Friday.

Monichetti thinks the diamondbacks were already dead when the tides swept them onto the beach. He said the crab trap found nearby had nothing to do with their deaths.

This abandoned large crab trap was found near the 82 dead turtles on Memorial Day. (Courtesy Steve Ahern)

Exactly what happened to the turtle carcasses later on, after they were discovered, remains unclear.

Renny Steele, chief of the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol, said the dead turtles may have been washed out into the ocean by the tides or possibly were “raked up” by the equipment used by the city’s beach-cleaning crews.

Two people walking on the beach discovered the turtles and called the beach patrol, which in turn notified the DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife as well as other environmental experts.

“What we found when we got down there were a few dead crabs, but mostly dead turtles. There was nothing alive,” Steele said, noting that the beach patrol also took photos.

The turtles were found about four or five yards away from the crab trap, not inside it, he said.

The beach patrol removed the trap and took it to its headquarters, turning it over to a representative of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, Steele explained.

Steele said it was impossible to identify the owner of the trap because it had no markings or numbers on it. The trap did not have an excluder on it, a device that is designed to prevent turtles from climbing inside and drowning.

According to a DEP press release, diamondback terrapins once were abundant, but their population decreased dramatically by the 1930s, due primarily to harvesting for food. Their numbers started increasing by the 1960s, but in recent decades the diamondbacks have been at risk again due to habitat loss, drowning in crab traps and being run over by cars when they try to cross roadways, the DEP says.

Although the diamondback terrapin has not been listed as threatened or endangered in New Jersey, its status is listed as decreasing. As part of the state’s recovery effort, former Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation in 2016 that bans the harvesting of diamondback terrapins and prohibits disturbing their nests and eggs.