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Multiple turtles found dead on Southold beach

Turtles are having more than a moment in 2023. This could be called The Summer of the Turtle.

Turtle crossing signs warning drivers of the slow-moving creatures in roadways have sprouted all over the Island, like mushrooms after a humid night, because residents are sick to their stomachs — some literally — of turtles smashed under tires, including females carrying multiple eggs.

Last week we had a story about a terrapin climbing a bluff to lay her eggs, and readers responded with awe at the animals instinctual dedication and persistence to reproduce.

And across the water in Southold Town local environmental groups and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation received reports of turtles washed up dead on South Harbor Beach last Sunday morning.

The seven turtles spotted across the sandy shoreline were identified as female diamondback terrapins.

Tess Fields, up from Washington D.C. to visit her family, said her cousin spotted a turtle motionless on the beach. She was one of the first residents to survey the scene and notify local environmental organizations.

“I recognized them as diamondback terrapins, we’ve seen them alive in the bay before,” Ms. Fields said. “It’s very sad, I’ve never seen anything like this before. One was on her back, all the other ones were on their stomachs. They didn’t seem to have any sign of damage or anything but clearly had been dead for a while.”

She emailed the Cornell Cooperative Extension and called the New York Marine Rescue Center, which notified Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons. A volunteer with the Jamesport-based not-for-profit that rehabilitates turtles and a representative from the DEC then arrived on the scene.

Karen Testa, the executive director of Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, said the turtles were likely caught in a crab trap, could not come up for air and drowned, which would explain their bloated appearance.

“This time of year, females are very hungry because they just came out of hibernation and they’re laying their eggs,” she said. “I’m sure they found a nice loaded crab trap and went over and seven of them went in and they couldn’t get out.”

Ms. Testa said her not-for-profit encounters an event such as Sunday’s about once a year. She suspects that these crab traps are not properly equipped with a DEC-required Terrapin Excluder Device, which narrows the traps’ openings to prevent most turtles from entering. State regulations require that TEDs measuring 4 ¾” by 1 ¾” be installed on all funnel entrances of non-collapsible crab pots set in creeks, coves, rivers, tributaries and near-shore harbors of the marine and coastal district, according to the DEC website.

Six of the deceased turtles are still on the beach, while the seventh is assumed to have washed back into the bay.

Sunday’s scene has concerned locals, who have enjoyed seeing the shelled creatures on the beach.

“We actually got to see a baby hatch last year on the beach, which we had never seen before,” Ms. Fields said. “So we know that they nest in our beach, or at least have once before. We saw this little baby coming up from the dunes down to the water and we got to watch him swim away which was really cool.”

Turtles, clearly built for duration and not speed, have reigned for an estimated 220 million years. They crawled about when dinosaurs walked the earth. They are one of nature’s ultimate survivors.

They are also tough.

More than 80% of the turtle species known to have lived at the time of the dinosaurs survived a mass extinction event, the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, according to the American Museum of Natural History. Researchers believe the slow metabolism and aquatic lifestyles of turtles helped them survive that earth-changing event.

Diamondback terrapins are the only species native to the U.S. that live exclusively in brackish, saltwater marshes and bays, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science website. They are not classified as sea turtles, but their populations are also under stress, with crab traps and boat strikes considered primary threats.

Ms. Testa recommends that anyone with crab traps that do not have a TED installed contact Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons at [email protected] to receive one for free to help prevent more diamondback terrapins from drowning.