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Lowcountry crabbers teaming with DNR to protect Diamondback Terrapins

(WCIV)

The Lowcountry loves its seafood, but that appetite often comes with a cost, especially when it comes to crabs.

More often than not, local crabbers are catching more than the crabs they're after. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources says many pull up their traps only to discover dead diamondback terrapins.

Despite spending much of their time in water, turtles still need to come to the surface to breathe. Unable to free themselves from the traps, they drown.

The needless deaths have led DNR to test out a new design for a Bycatch Reduction Device, also known as an excluder.

Robert Solott, a McClellanville blueberry farmer and crabber, is one of 29 commercial crabbers testing the device that’s designed to draw blue crabs in, but keep terrapins out.

Solott said he sees the problem of trapped turtles quite often around the Cape Remain Wildlife Refuge. On Thursday, DNR specialists helped outfit all of Solott’s crab traps with the new excluders.

“In areas like this, if I was to remain crabbing, if I pulled 20 crab pots, there could be 20 terrapins, you might have three in one, one in another,” said Solott.

The diamondback terrapin is listed as a “high priority species” under the South Carolina Wildlife Action Plan. Salt marshes are their only habitat.

DNR biologist and terrapin specialist Mike Arendt says the turtles play a vital role in maintaining the marshes health by eating things like the periwinkle snail, which can destroy marsh vegetation if left unchecked.

Arendt said it’s been tough to reel commercial crabbers in, as many worry about losing out on larger catch. Arendt designed the new excluder and said it’s been dramatically altered to allow crabs up to 7.5-inches in.

“These animals turn their bodies as they enter so that diagonal is really the most important dimension,” Arendt said. “The majority of crabs that people catch are this size and smaller. We’re looking into how this negatively affects, if it negatively affects crab catch.”

But the excluders haven’t slowed the Crab Bus, the name of Solott’s boat.

“We did it over the winter time and there was absolutely no difference in the catch and we used them for several months,” said Solott.

Arendt said it’s a way of giving back to the water and cutting back on needless waste.

“It’s about finding that balance with the environment and going for being as sustainable as possible making your negative footprints as menial as possible,” said Arendt.

“We kind of have a feeling for things like that,”said Solott. “It’s just a conscience, it just doesn’t seem right.”

DNR is looking for more commercial and recreational crabbers to be part of this study.

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