A Sad Introduction to the Terrapin Project

After many weeks of fieldwork, it is time to tell the long story of the research that has been done. While the entirety of the research itself has been overwhelmingly positive, The first day of surveying the work site was cast in a grim light upon a depressing finding. My research partner and I, along with our lab professor and his assistant, paddled out to the Catlett Islands to evaluate where the best spots for pots would be. It was a windy, sunny day, and our spirits were light as we made our way out of Cedar Bush Creek to look for both suitable sites and Terrapins. When entering one of the many small bays of the Islands, we found several old crab pot buoys, with rusted metal rings attached. Luckily enough, nothing was caught in the first few, but the last one we pulled up was a new crab pot and had yet to deteriorate to the level of the others. Sadly, when we pulled it out of the water, it was filled with Diamond-backed Terrapins.


We took each turtle out and counted as we laid them side by side. There were 30 turtles, and none of them had survived. It was a hard site to take in. We pulled the pot onto the marsh grass and recorded the identification number so that we could report it to the Waterman’s Association. We took pictures of the turtles as proof and in order to share the news and hopefully raise awareness about the situation.

Remarkably, the incident made front-page news in both the Virginia Gazette and the Daily Press, which garnered a lot of support from the surrounding community. I can’t say how heartwarming it’s been to not only work with these animals this summer but also to be able to receive the interest that we have been able to. While the beginning of the project was certainly a rough start, the rest has been going incredibly well, and the discussion this project has sparked has been an important one for crabbers and fishermen along the York River. One that I am hopeful will bring support to the idea of Turtle Exclusion Devices being a voluntary addition or even a requirement for crabbers in the state of Virginia.


  1. Hannah Call says:

    I’m glad that there was a silver lining to what must have been an upsetting day. There has been so much attention given to trash in our waterways and oceans in the past year. People seem to be making positive changes to their behavior. Maybe the next step is starting a discussion about the objects that we intentionally place in the water. What are the ways in which we can prevent turtles from being killed in crab pots? I think that the owners of the crab pots should be required to check each pot frequently and remove old pots rather than letting them deteriorate unmonitored. Perhaps buoys could be given tracking chips so that when weather conditions move them around their owners can still find them and check them.

  2. acbelvin says:

    Those are both great ideas, and ones we have been considering. Currently, the main avenue for keeping turtles out of the pots are Turtle Exclusion Devices, which go in the opening of the pots, and make a thinner opening, one that crab can fit through, but most turtles can’t. In places like Maryland (where the terrapin is the state reptile), these devices are required for crabbing, but in Virginia they are not. Currently, my lab is working on trying to get VIMS to back TED enforcement, another idea my friend had was to partner with local businesses that sell bait to also sell the devices and offer a decreased price if the devices are purchased with the bait. The problem with starting movement in conservation of the Terrapin population is that so little is known about its status that many people don’t view this as a problem. Either way, the community has seemed to be very responsive to the situation; even the watermen. Its a problem that can only be solved with a lot of cooperation on both sides.