STONE HARBOR, N.J. - On a gray, unseasonably chilly day last week, two turtle hatchlings emerged from their winter hibernation inside a hole three inches beneath the sand at the Jersey Shore.
The diamondback terrapins, a unique turtle that lives in brackish waters along the coast and Delaware Bay, would soon taste freedom for the first time. But first, a biologist with the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor would have to remove the wire cages that had been placed above their nests last fall to protect the hatchlings - each the size of a quarter - from raccoons, skunks, and other predators.
Intervention is key to keeping the terrapins alive as their habitat is increasingly destroyed and as harvesters export them to Asian markets to be used as pets or in soup.
As concerns about the species' survival grow, the New Jersey Legislature and the state Department of Environmental Protection are proposing new laws and regulations to protect them.
The terrapins, which can grow to be four to six inches and which have brown and black carapaces, are found along the country's East Coast. New Jersey and New York are the only states that have yet to ban commercial harvesting outright or to set strict limits.
Lisa Ferguson, the Wetlands Institute's director of research and conservation, said the terrapins face a variety of threats, including being entrapped in crabbing nets where they drown. Over the next few months, the female terrapins are in added jeopardy, she said, because they are nesting and venture onto the roadways to search for new spots to lay their eggs because the old locations have been lost to development.
As they have for the last 25 years, the Wetlands Institute's volunteers will soon begin patrols to retrieve turtle eggs from inside the bellies of female turtles that are killed by motorists, she said.
"We find 500 dead females on the roads on average each summer," Ferguson said. "That's significant," because most of these terrapins are at least 7 years old, the age when they begin to reproduce. She said the Wetlands Institute retrieves hundreds of eggs each summer and incubates them.
The harvesting of the terrapins is just the latest concern, said Brian Williamson, a research scientist at the institute. "We don't know how many of the terrapins are being collected and sold," he said.
The problem came to light recently after U.S. Fish and Wildlife reported last year that 14,000 terrapins from the East Coast had been exported to Asian markets the previous year. The agency notified the DEP that harvesters captured 3,522 adult diamondback terrapins from the Jersey Shore in December 2013 and had sold them to an aquaculture facility in Maryland where they were being used for breeding. The offspring were then exported, the agency said.
Last month, the state Assembly unanimously passed a bill that would ban future harvesting and that would direct the state DEP to investigate the status of the terrapin population and determine how best to protect the reptile. An identical bill was passed by the Senate Environmental and Energy Committee in March and is expected to move to the Senate floor for a vote.
"Overharvesting is a major concern as well as man-made threats in and around the [terrapins'] habitats," Sen. Jeff Van Drew, (D., Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland), a primary sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.
Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, a Democrat who represents the same Shore district, sponsored the companion bill in the Assembly.
The terrapin has a life expectancy of about 40 years if it makes it past the various dangers it faces, Williamson said. It feeds on saltmarsh periwinkle, a snail that grazes on marsh grasses and that could turn the wetlands into a mudflat if it had no such predator, he said.
"Harvesting of the terrapins is just another threat, especially since New Jersey is one of the last states in the area to allow it," Williamson said. "That makes the terrapins in New Jersey more vulnerable."
In 2015 and 2016, state DEP Commissioner Bob Martin shortened the harvesting season, which runs between Nov. 1 and March 31, by a few weeks, citing concerns about the turtle's future. In January, Martin said in an administrative order that "the demographic and life-history characteristics of terrapins combined with the continued demand for the export of turtles" convinced him that continuing the moratorium on harvesting terrapins was necessary.
Since then, a regulation that would indefinitely close the harvest has been drafted by the DEP, according to Larry Hajna, an agency spokesman. "We know enough about the issues facing the diamondback terrapin to know it's a species in trouble and needs our help," he said. "The species reaches sexual maturity late in life, at six or seven years, and less than 10 percent actually make it to the first year."
Hajna said the regulation would be published May 16 and be open for public comment before it goes into effect, possibly this summer. He cited a study that began in 2002 at North Sedge Island, at the southern end of Island Beach State Park off Barnegat Bay, which identified 104 nesting female diamondback terrapins and marked them for tracking purposes. By 2015, he said, only 73 could be found in that protected area.
Ferguson said that the Wetlands Institute has marked about 4,000 terrapins in the Stone Harbor area over the last two decades and is studying the population fluctuations. She said the data are still coming in and it is difficult to determine their decline at this time.
Last week, Williamson took the two hatchlings that had just come to the surface and examined them, recording their appearance. Then, he found a marshy spot and released them into the soft mud, covering them with brown and green spartina grasses before leaving them to wriggle away.