SOMERS POINT — Just as tourist season picks up at the Jersey Shore, so does diamondback terrapin nesting season, and volunteers are working overtime to protect the turtles from being crushed by cars.
Protecting nesting terrapins along roadways has become a time-honored tradition for local volunteers along the marshes. Some use chicken wire or other fencing attached to guardrails, while others use tubing lining the shoulder to stop the turtles from crossing into the street.
Jessie Marienski, 28, of Somers Point, began installing fence along Route 152 between Somers Point and Longport seven years ago with her mother, Sharon. A state road project last month that included replacing existing guardrails there destroyed years of effort, but Marienski and a small group of volunteers regrouped Monday to install 2,500 feet of fence.
“I don’t want to leave this world knowing that I didn’t make an impact on something. So I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Marienski said.
Diamondback terrapins live in salt marshes from Massachusetts to Texas. Lisa Ferguson, director of research and conservation at the Wetlands Institute in Cape May County, said the turtles nest between late May and mid-July.
“When they nest, the females need to look for high ground to lay their eggs. Because of our developed coastal areas, they run across the road,” Ferguson said.
She said most of the time, the turtles struck by cars are adult females carrying eggs, which puts the population in danger.
“Fencing certainly helps, and it’s shown to be effective when maintained,” Ferguson said, adding that driver diligence and road signs also help.
Every year, about 500 diamondback terrapin deaths are reported on the coastal roads covered by the Wetlands Institute, from Strathmere to Stone Harbor, Ferguson said.
“That is with portions of the road being fenced and with a lot of community effort and support to save terrapins that are crossing the road,” she said.
In portions of that region that lack fences, she said, about 300 turtles are reported saved in a year.
Ferguson said many groups in the region work to save the terrapins by installing and maintaining fences. Marienski said she became involved after noticing numerous crushed turtles on the road while driving to the beach. She and her mom contacted the Wetlands Institute to learn how they could help.
It was Marienski’s friend, Kimber Lull, of the Margate Terrapin Rescue Project, who noticed construction along Route 152 and notified the Marienskis. On Monday, they finished installing the last 1,100 feet of fence “just in time for Fourth of July traffic,” Marienski said.
She was thankful for the support of state Department of Transportation workers — one of whom, when he realized she was the one installing the fence, personally donated $100 to help pay for supplies.
“He said, ‘Oh my God, my project manager has been so concerned on trying to figure out who put this fencing out.’ I was shocked because I didn’t know people even knew what it was,” Marienski said.
She said the effort is not only a lot of time spent, but a lot of money, too: about $6,000 to date.
Marienski said she tries to protect the turtles because she is “just a really big animal person.”
“The proof is in the pudding: When we go to the beach and there’s no dead turtles, that’s all I need to know,” she said.