(Delmarvanow.com) -- When a local man started seeing dead turtles on the road connecting the Eastern Shore to mainland Virginia, he didn’t hesitate to speak up.
“I saw a lot of turtles getting hit,” said Barney Fedele, a former Onley resident. “I have a house on the Eastern Shore and I was working in Norfolk, and I was just wondering what could be done.”
More than a decade later, his and others’ concerns have helped launch a project to protect the diamondback terrapins of Fisherman Island.
“They are an important part of the ecosystem — just as important as the birds … or any other wildlife,” said Pam Denmon, wildlife biologist at Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.
The native turtles are listed as a Tier 2 species in the Virginia State Wildlife Action Plan, meaning they have a very high conservation need.
“They have quite a few threats,” Denmon said, including predators such as raccoons and crows that rob the turtles’ nests.
With a new Federal Lands Access Program grant, she hopes traffic will be one less.
Work on the project began in 2006, when refuge staff started brainstorming ways to keep the turtles off Route 13, where they travel from one side of Fisherman Island’s marsh to the other.
“We decided that we would at least start counting them and getting GPS coordinates for the location” of turtles found both dead and alive, Denmon said.
She’s already counted more than 20 turtles this year, though that number fluctuates a lot and doesn’t capture all the terrapins that have made the trek across Route 13, she said.
The bulk of the kills occurs in June and July, when female terrapins search out sandy spots to lay their eggs, Denmon said.
“These terrapins are typically in the marsh their whole lifetimes, except (when) the females come out to lay their eggs in the sand in the nesting season,” she said.
But Denmon can’t explain why the terrapins choose such a dangerous route.
“They’re going from one marsh creek to another marsh creek to a beach. They were either doing that before the road was there, or they are just going to a site where they were successful before,” she said. “Maybe they were successful crossing the road before, or looking for areas with more beach.”
To prevent egg-heavy mothers from making the dangerous trip across the highway, workers at the wildlife refuge have tried several techniques, in cooperation with Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel staff.
They installed one barrier, which sheared in the wind.
A few years later, they tried using a plastic mesh fence to contain the turtles, and then, a round, plastic pipe laid along the roadside.
Now they’ve found a more permanent solution.
“The problem with the thing we have now is … it cracks and they (the turtles) can dig under it because it’s not very heavy, and so we’re always out there trying to patch it and keep it together,” Denmon said.
The concrete barrier in the works will be “good to go in perpetuity,” she said.
The barrier will be roughly 1 foot wide and 1 foot high — just big enough to prevent terrapins from crawling over it, Denmon said.
It will extend roughly 1.5 miles along Route 13 on Fisherman Island to block the turtles from entering oncoming traffic and it will be split into pieces to allow gaps big enough for water to flow, but small enough to prevent turtle crossings, she said.
That structure could still be up to two years in the making, however, Bridge Tunnel Assistant Director of Maintenance Tim Holloway said.
Bridge Tunnel staff are still in the early phases of the project, drafting a memorandum of agreement for project specifics, he said.
Though the federal grant will cover the costs of the barrier, there will be requirements for in-kind matching for local labor and a Fish and Wildlife Service intern, he said.
“The rest would be speculative at this point,” Holloway added.
The wildlife refuge plans to install informational kiosks at the Bridge Tunnel overlook and entrance to Fisherman Island and offer terrapin tours during the nesting season, Denmon said.
She credited Bridge Tunnel staff, who applied for the grant and allowed the refuge to carry out its terrapin projects on their land, for the future success of the project.
“They’ve gone above and beyond by putting this permanent structure up,” she said.
Holloway added that frequent drivers need not worry about the barrier creating an eyesore on Route 13.
“Unless you’re looking for it — know what you’re looking for — it’s not visible,” he said. “What you won’t see is dead turtles on the road.”
A similar project on Route 1 along a 6.3-mile stretch of road through Delaware Seashore State Park has helped curbed as many as 100 turtle deaths each year. That project helped inspire Fedele’s call for action on the Eastern Shore.
“You’re not going to win all the battles, but you just fight the small battles and go from there,” said the now-Delaware resident, who volunteered with Fisherman Island’s terrapin projects.
“Just doing something little may help,” Fedele said.