By Donald Wittkowski
Diamondback terrapins can live for 30 to 40 years, a remarkably long time for these denizens of New Jersey’s coastal salt marshes that are constantly threatened by predators and highway hazards.
Tragically, the only time many people see the turtles at the Jersey Shore is when they lie crushed along roadways crowded with summer tourist traffic.
Mary Galligan, owner of the Jugglefish Gallery & Art Studio in Sea Isle City, wants everyone, particularly children, to know just how important the diamondbacks are to the local eco-system and some of the ways they can help to save them.
“We want to promote an awareness of Sea Isle’s natural resources and to protect the environment,” Galligan said.
For the second straight year, Galligan turned her gallery on 63rd Street into an environmental training ground of sorts by hosting 80 to 100 children and adults at a “Turtle Party” on Saturday that culminated with a march down to the marshlands to release some diamondback hatchlings into the wild.
The children painted “We Love Turtles” signs, listened to experts from the Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue organization and learned how they can protect the slow-crawling creatures during their nesting season from early June to mid-July.
“People want to do the right thing. This is a great way of teaching them how to do that,” Galligan said.
Although diamondback terrapins can live for an extraordinarily long time, it is rare for many of them to even make it beyond the hatchling stage.
“Only one egg in a thousand grows up to be an adult turtle, so they’re playing a numbers game,” said Steve Ahern, who runs the Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue organization with his wife, Susan.
Their high mortality rate stems from numerous threats, including loss of habitat, drowning in crab traps, harvesting for overseas food markets and falling prey to predators such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, seagulls and crows.
The females often suffer a cruel fate when they try to cross the roadways to lay their eggs in the beaches and other sandy patches. Their small shells are no match for scores of cars and trucks traveling to Sea Isle and other beachfront vacation communities.
Motorists, provided it is safe to do so, can do their part by helping the diamondbacks across the road. They should carry the turtles in the same direction they are heading, otherwise they will try to cross the road again and risk getting hit by traffic.
Galligan said the turtles are also taken home as pets, further reducing their numbers in the wild.
“The baby turtles are so small and cute, they want to take them home,” she said.
New Jersey’s Senate gave final legislative approval in May to a measure that bans the hunting or harvesting of diamondback terrapins amid their dwindling population.
“We know that this species, which holds a special place in the hearts of residents of coastal areas as well as visitors, faces many threats and has been declining in numbers for many years now,” New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said in a statement.
Susan and Steve Ahern, volunteers who work closely with the Wetlands Institute Terrapin Conservation Project in Stone Harbor, hold special permits that allow them to rescue baby turtles from storm drains.
“We used to find about 500 turtles in the storm drains. Now, we’re finding less than 100,” Steve Ahern said.
After speaking to the children Saturday at the Jugglefish Gallery, the Aherns orchestrated a march down to the marshlands behind Dealy Field on 63rd Street to release some rescued hatchlings.
Steve Ahern noted that, since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, there seems to be an increase in the number of foxes, raccoons, skunks and other turtle predators at the shore. Seagulls and crows also prey on the hatchlings.
However, Ahern said he is encouraged by what appears to be more female turtles coming out to nest this year.
Although they prefer the beaches to lay their eggs, the turtles will also scratch out a place in people’s yards, saving themselves from making a longer and perhaps more perilous trip to the traditional nesting areas.
“They have to cross three streets to go to the beach,” Ahern said of the journey from Sea Isle’s marshlands to the oceanfront.
The town has contributed to the diamondback terrapin conservation effort by creating two “turtle gardens” behind the Sea Isle City Library at 48th Street and the bay.
The areas include man-made nesting habitats for the turtles. The nesting sites can be viewed from the library’s second floor, but they are off-limits to people and pets.
Below are some additional photos of the event: