ANNAPOLIS – When Michael Weir was a boy in the 1930s, he used to drop lines into Baltimore County’s Back River — not for fish, but for snapping turtles.
He’d cut a sapling about seven feet tall, leave a few leaves so he could spot the gear from a distance, and tie on a hook and line. In a span of about five days, he once caught 37 turtles on 50 lines.
“At the tail end of the depression that was meat on the table,” says Weir, who now represents his home county as a Democrat in the House of Delegates.
This session, he has sponsored a bill that would legalize the use of hook and line to control snapping turtles, which prey on ducklings in nesting areas.
Weir says that snapping turtles are plentiful, as they were in his youth. He does not believe his proposed legislation threatens the turtle.
But Peter Jensen, director of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says that hook-and-line catching of snapping turtles has been barred by the DNR for roughly 20 years.
“The problem is if you are going to take them to the market when the turtles have been hooked … they may get a gangrene infection and then be unsuitable for the market,” Jensen says.
The DNR’s written report on Weir’s bill outlines “several disadvantages” to the hook-and-line method:
– Turtles too small to sell may get hooked and die from the damage.
– The turtle may swallow the hook and swim away, wounding its internal organs.
– The line could catch on submerged objects as the turtle swims away, causing the turtle to drown.
Even so, if Weir’s bill were limited to private ponds and did not include tidal waterways, Jensen says the DNR would remove its objections.
Weir plans to amend the bill before an Environmental Matters Committee vote, which could be scheduled as early as Friday.
“The main thing is to allow people who have wild ducks breeding on their pond or shallow estuaries where they live, give them a means of catching the damn turtles that are eating the baby ducks,” he says.
Weir insists that “snapping turtles are a big threat to baby ducks,” adding that of eight to 10 ducklings in a brood, only one or two might escape being prey.
Tim Hoen, president of the Herpetological Society in Baltimore, says ducks are vulnerable because the turtles “move so silently and unobtrusively in the water.” The turtle’s shell may also be covered with moss, allowing it to go undetected.
But birds, especially hawks, will also eat ducklings, Hoen says.
Jensen adds that while the turtles eat some ducks, “we don’t see a problem with the duck population.”
The snapping turtle gets its name from its powerful jaw.
“If he got hold of your hand, he would never let go, never,” says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “The only way he’ll let go is if you chop his head off — if you can stand the pain while you’re doing that. Because he’s going to bit harder every time you move.”
Jensen adds, ominously, “If you see a big dark-shelled turtle, don’t mess with it.”
Hoen says the snapper is “probably one of the most successful turtles in the state of Maryland because it eats anything. If they are hungry they even eat other turtles.”
Its size is one measure of its adaptive success. “I’ve seen them over 35 pounds,” Hoen says. “They can get to be the size of a small trash can lid.”
Willem Roosenburg, an Ohio University biology professor and turtle expert, says the biggest snapper he’s caught was 45 pounds, in a Chesapeake Bay tributary.
“You’ll find them in the upper reaches of estuaries,” says Roosenburg, who studies the rarer Diamondback terrapin, the official Maryland state reptile.
Snapping turtles cannot live in extremely salty water. The largest Hoen has seen were in clear running streams and rural areas. The turtles can live about 50 years.
But snappers are not only predators, they can be “a tasty morsel for many animals,” Hoen says. “When they are young their shells are very soft. Their mortality rate is high to begin with.”
Seagulls, watersnakes and racoons are known to eat the turtles.
Although the snapper seems to be thriving, Roosenburg warns that “any removal of large scale efforts can seriously jeopardize the snapping turtle population. Snapping turtles are dependent on maintaining adults in the population.”
Ducks can reproduce after one or two years, but snapping turtles don’t reproduce until they are about 7 to 10 years old, he says. “It is easy to fish out all the turtles in one area,” Roosenburg says. “[Watermen] can wipe out the population, then via migration it will take three or four years to have new turtles … for the turtles to reinvade the area.” -30-