Release of endangered turtles becoming annual rite

Alice C. Elwell

Setting dozens of turtles free on the banks of Great Quittacas and Pocksha ponds in Middleboro has become a rite of spring for many who flock to watch the annual release of a federally endangered species.

Thirty years ago, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife began gathering northern red-bellied cooter hatchlings in the fall, nurturing them over the winter with warm water and a high-protein diet to give the rapidly disappearing species a better shot at survival.

By spring, the cooters, once about the size of a quarter, can reach a size that is too big to be gobbled up by bullfrogs, their only predator.

When they reach adulthood, their only predator is the automobile, said Peter Mirick, wildlife biologist for the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Long Point Road, where 111 cooters were released on Friday, lacks signs warning drivers that turtles may be crossing, and that’s something Middleboro Conservation Agent Patricia J. Cassady is working to remedy.

For some, the release was mostly joyous, but a little sad.

Joanne Nicholson, from the National Marine Center in Buzzards Bay, helped raise eight hatchlings over the winter.

“We put a lot of work into them. It’s always nice to see them go back in the water, but it’s bittersweet,” she said.

Mara Brown, 13, of Marshfield helped release the cooters after her mother got word of the event through e-mail. Brown said the turtle she released was “adorable and cool.”

The 30-year effort has been a success, Mirick said. He estimated thousands of cooters now live in the Assawompset Pond Complex, up from about 100 in the mid-1980s.

And there’s room for plenty more; Mirick said the ponds are well below capacity.

Mirick said a combination of factors led to the cooters’ decline, mainly loss of nesting ground, which surprisingly is due to better firefighting techniques.

Mirick said northern red-bellied cooters require open sandy soil along water bodies to lay their eggs, with good radiation from the sun. Periodic forest fires helped maintain the open space, but now, Mirick said, much of the nesting grounds are grown over, leaving fewer places for the turtles to lay eggs.

Cooters are the Bay State’s second-largest freshwater turtle, second only to the snapping turtle. They do not compete with any other species, Mirick said. The young might eat the occasional crayfish, but once they are adults, cooters subsist only on vegetation, and they eat only in water.

The Enterprise