Environmentalists, researchers and volunteers are celebrating removal of the diamondback terrapin as a game species in New Jersey.

“It’s a very positive move,” said Wetlands Institute Director of Research and Conservation Lisa Ferguson. “Hopefully there will be more to follow in terms of protections.”

She said the institute is now working on population estimates and a better understanding of all threats to the species.

Legislation to make it illegal to harvest the brackish water terrapins, a species of turtle native to New Jersey and other coastal states, became law Friday when Governor Chris Christie signed it.

Co-sponsor Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic/Cape May/Cumberland) created the bill at the urging of students from theMarine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science in Manahawkin, Stafford Township, he said Monday.

“They sent me a bunch of letters, asking if I could do something about this,” Van Drew said of the correspondence more than a year ago. “We wrote back and said we agreed, and would move ahead.”

The legislation, A-2949/S-1625, designated the diamondback terrapin as a nongame indigenous species, subject to protections of the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Conservation Act.

It is expected to save tens of thousands of turtles a year, giving a boost to the scientists, nonprofit workers, volunteers and students who have actively campaigned to end terrapin harvesting and who patrol roads to save injured turtles and the eggs of those killed on roads.

Researchers have warned for years that the terrapin population was diminishing due to habitat loss and road mortality, and volunteers with the Margate Terrapin Rescue Project and other groups have been erecting berms and fencing on the side of causeways to keep the terrapins from being hit.

Ferguson said development and sea level rise has destroyed nesting sites throughout the terrapins range from Cape Cod to the Florida Keys and West along the Gulf of Mexico to Texas.

But New Jersey’s causeways built straight through the marsh are an extra threat here. Many other states built elevated roads over marshes, she said.

Commercial harvesting had increased in recent years, mostly to serve the Asian trade.

In 2013, more than 3,500 terrapins were taken from two South Jersey locations and provided to an out of state facility that raises them for overseas markets. More than 14,000 offspring of the adult terrapins were then exported to Asia, the DEP said.

Other nearby states, including Maryland and Connecticut, had already banned the harvesting of diamondback terrapins.

While the terrapin season was cut short by the Department of Environmental Protection for the last two years, because of concerns about too many turtles being taken, environmentalists and researchers had argued that wasn't enough.

The DEP this year proposed a regulation to close the harvesting of diamondback terrapins in New Jersey indefinitely, but it could have been reversed.

“We need to protect them and to restore their population, and making the ban permanent under state law will ensure the effort to conserve the species and its habitats is something the state will undertake long-term,” said Van Drew.

Sponsors in the Assembly included Democrats Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, Atlantic & Cumberland; and Bruce Land, D-Cape May, Atlantic & Cumberland.

Under the law, it is now illegal to catch or take diamondback terrapins in New Jersey. The law also requires that the Commissioner of Environmental Protection conduct biological and ecological data research on the State’s diamondback terrapin population and determine measures to ensure the conservation of the species’ population.

The Wetlands Institute has been at the forefront of diamondback terrapin protection for years. It successfully lobbied to require terrapin excluders on crab traps about 20 years ago, helping reduce the number of air-breathing turtles drowned in crab pots.

“They are only as effective as the compliance rate,” said Ferguson. She said abandonned traps retrieved by institute staff often don’t have the devices on them.

But when they are installed, they are effective in protecting terrapins, she said.

“The excluders have been shown to reduce the number of terrapins captured without reducing the number of crabs (captured),” Ferguson said.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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