Turtles and terrapin aquaculture

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116543507722151.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of www.uga.edu‘, ‘Male diamondback terrapin turtle caught in the the tidal salt marsh creeks on Kiawah Island, Charleston County, S.C.’);

No member of the turtle tribe has enjoyed the fame and popularity the diamondback terrapin experienced during the period of our history that extended from the gay ’90s to the roaring ’20. (Incidentally, a terrapin is usually defined as an edible turtle found in water; a tortoise is a turtle found on land; a turtle being either one or the other).

This terrapin is called the diamondback because of the concentric rings within the raised plates on its back. It is unique in that it is the only turtle in the U.S. that can exist in the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. This animal is the official reptile of the State of Maryland and the beloved mascot of the state university.

During the last 100 years, the populations of diamondbacks along the East Coast have been on a roller-coaster ride, varying from almost being almost wiped out to scarce. The nadir of the terrapin’s numbers came in the late 1920s when it was said that no champagne dinner was complete without diamondback terrapin being one of the delicacies served. Diamond Jim Brady was said to be fonder of terrapin than he was of oysters, and I imagine the dinner parties this noted gourmand hosted put a significant dent in the terrapin population. The demand for the reptile was so great during this period that a dozen of them in the 7 to 8 inch category sold for about $100. One gourmand of the era referred to the diamondback as “the scintillating gem in the dietary of the elite. These animals not being intended for the vulgar palate.”

With the coming of the Great Depression in the early ’30s, the demand for terrapin meat drastically declined, as did the flamboyant lifestyles of many individuals, and the diamondback populations started a slow recovery. This recovery of numbers was aided in part by several states passing legislation greatly restricting, or banning altogether, the commercial harvesting of these terrapins. A few elite restaurants still offered diamondback terrapin on their menus, but not enough were caught to influence their numbers.

In recent years, however, pressure on populations has greatly increased by a demand for them in certain Asian countries, especially China and Japan. Their numbers are again rapidly declining as a result of this new market and by waterfront development that is paving areas the turtles need for nesting. To cope with this situation, the state of Maryland has recently enacted new stringent laws to protect them. Large reproducing terps cannot be taken at any time, but there is no restriction on catching smaller ones in the 3- to 4-inch class.

The Baltimore Sun recently reported that a waterman who was having difficulty making ends meet catching scarce oysters and crabs had turned to terrapin farming to solve his financial difficulties. This enterprising waterman, who says he grew up eating “turtle pot pie” baked by his grandmother, sees the handwriting on the wall. He bulldozed a series of ponds on his farm, and when the ban of small turtles was lifted this past summer, he stocked them with 5,000 small turtles he bought from other watermen and quickly sold 2,500 of them to a turtle dealer in Louisiana, who shipped them off to the waiting orient. The neophyte turtle rancher hopes his charges will reproduce naturally in the environment he has provided.

Long ago, fishery and marine biologists predicted that most species of seafood could not endure unregulated fishing pressure, and that aquaculture was the only way the seafood industry and the individuals who derive their living from the water could continue to exist. This has certainly proven to be true with the American oyster on the East and Gulf coasts. Overfishing and disease has decimated natural populations of the bivalves, and more and more we see the artificial propagation of oyster by aquaculture. However, the artificial rearing of oysters has lagged on the East Coast (it is difficult for a waterman to change harvesting procedures that have been handed down to him from many generations of ancestors). In fact, most of the oysters we here in the Rock River Valley buy in the supermarket come the northwest part of the U.S., where the Japanese oyster is artificially propagated in large numbers.

Let’s hope this attempt at diamondback terrapin aquaculture in Maryland proves to be a success, and the unique and gentle diamondback terrapin is not extirpated by the greed of man.

From the Dec. 6 – Dec. 12, 2006, issue

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