CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - State Sen. Jeff Van Drew is asking shore towns in northern Cape May County to do more to protect diamondback terrapins through fencing and signage.
“I am asking that the appropriate research, time and resources be put into this issue so that a reasonable resolution can be found and we can protect these animals and our ecosystem,” Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, wrote in a letter to Sea Isle City, Ocean City and Upper Township dated Aug. 8.
Diamondback terrapins, which are native to New Jersey, live in salt marshes from Massachusetts to Texas. Every year between May and July the female terrapins cross coastal roadways throughout the state to lay eggs.
“The terrapins are extensive along our coast, and just because the way our roads were developed, they often cause these pretty extreme hazards for the turtles,” said Lisa Ferguson, director of research and conservation at the Wetlands Institute in Middle Township. “It’s a widespread problem.”
Some volunteers and groups, including the Wetlands Institute, already install protective fencing or barriers to keep the turtles off busy shore roads in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
On average, 500 diamondback terrapin deaths are reported per year on the roads from Strathmere to Stone Harbor covered by the Wetlands Institute. Ferguson said most of the time, the turtles struck by cars are adult females carrying eggs, which puts the population in danger.
“This could all be avoidable if as a community we made an effort to increase awareness through street signs during the high traffic times of mating season and also with the installation of preventative measures such as corrugated tubing, fencing or a barrier of some sort to stop the turtles from entering the roadway,” Van Drew wrote.
In Ocean City, the areas where the roads are close to the marshes that serve as terrapin habitat are in the south end, said public information officer Doug Bergen.
“Cape May County has posted turtle-crossing signs on West Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard for some time. The city added signs along 52nd Street between Bay Avenue and Dory Drive this year at the request of Councilman Tony Wilson,” Bergen said.
Katherine Custer, spokeswoman for Sea Isle, said the city undertakes various efforts to protect diamondback terrapins and educate the public, including the Sara the Turtle Festival each summer, working with schools and local children, support of the volunteer group Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue, and, most recently, creating a terrapin nesting site behind the Sea Isle City Library.
"Sea Isle takes the terrapin very seriously. As a community we've always tried to maintain awareness," Custer said. "It's sort of like our unofficial mascot."
Custer said Sea Isle supports the senator's initiative.
"We'll continue to improve our efforts to provide protection for them and continue to raise awareness with the public," she said.
Van Drew said his letter was prompted by comments from constituents about the lack of protection in the region for the turtles. In the letter, Van Drew notes that he and his Democratic colleagues, Assemblymen Bruce Land and Bob Andrzejczak, sponsored a bill, which was signed into law, that made it illegal to catch diamondback terrapins in New Jersey.
Although the barriers and signage help, Ferguson said, there is not one “quick and easy solution.”
Ferguson said a recent study showed that placement and designs of sign, identifying times when turtle crossings are higher, identifying where barriers need to be placed and maintenance of barriers are all important. She said although nesting season is over, awareness and education can be done throughout the year.
“It is a big problem so it takes a lot of interested parties to work on it,” she said.