MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Within the next couple of months, thousands of vacationers will flock to the region’s barrier islands just as thousands of diamondback terrapins attempt to do the same as part of their nesting ritual.
This combination of an influx of cars, an increase of crab traps in area waterways and a mobile terrapin population has deadly consequences.
“Every year there are about 400 to 600 turtles killed on area roadways,” said Patrick Baker, a research scientist for the Wetlands Institute on Stone Harbor Boulevard in Middle Township. “Before the barrier islands were developed, the terrapins would nest on the dunes. Now the dunes are gone and the beaches have bulkheads. So they’ve been heading to the higher ground on the causeways where there is high traffic volumes and high speeds, especially during this time of year.”
On Saturday, the Wetlands Institute held its second annual Turtle Fest, which is a family-oriented event to help raise awareness and funds needed to address the plight of the diamondback terrapins.
The only way to truly gauge how the terrapin population is coping with the issues in their habitat is to conduct an extensive census of the turtles, but Baker said the institute has not had enough funding to conduct one of these studies since 2008.
“The good news is we still have terrapins. But the population has likely declined because of the kinds of factors that have impacted their natural habitat,” said Baker, adding the institute has an ongoing initiative to install fencing along area roadways to help protect the turtles.
“This event will help us put a small dent into our funding needs, but it is more than that. What we do here isn’t just about what we do for the community, it is mostly about getting the community aware of the issues and involved in what we’re trying to do. … This is a great opportunity to do that.”
Turtle Fest was started last year by Wetlands Institute Volunteers Steve and Susan Ahearn, who also started the Sea Isle City Terrapin Rescue about four years ago as another way to help address the plight of these turtles.
“The response has been terrific,” said Steve Ahearn, 59, of Sea Isle City, adding more than 300 people were expected to attend this year’s event. “It is wonderful to see how many people care about the terrapins, and hopefully they’ll be inspired to get more involved throughout the rest of the year.”
Frank Franzino had a smile on his face Saturday morning as he ate breakfast with eight of his family members — including four grandchildren — and waited for even more members of his family’s group to arrive for Turtle Fest.
“Everyone’s down for Easter weekend and this is a great way to spend our time together,” said Franzino, 67, of Cresskill, Bergen County. “We’re going to go on a nature walk and we’re going to see some turtles, everything is all planned out. It certainly beats sitting in front of the television.”
And even though the event included activities such as an egg hunt and face painting, its intended message was not lost on Franzino’s young grandchildren.
“They are trying to help protect the turtles and they put fences up to keep them from getting run over by cars,” said Alexandra Franzino, 10, of Pennington, Mercer County.
Stone Harbor resident Terry Morris plans to make Turtle Fest an annual tradition for his family.
“There are great activities for the kids, a great building filled with information, and great people,” said Morris, 40.
Morris’ 8-year-old son, Charlie, was intently reading facts about terrapins on the walls of the institute’s Terrapin Station exhibit when he was asked what his favorite part of Turtle Fest was.
“The coolest thing was the person dressed up as a turtle,” he replied before explaining why the event was important. “A lot of the cars run over the turtles, and this place keeps them safe and they take some of the eggs from the storm drains so they can hatch safely. It is very important.”
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