Riverkeeper report: Improper use, care of turtle traps should end with fines

Published 7:52 am Saturday, October 8, 2011

by Jeff Turner

A commercial turtle trapper left this trap out after the season ended. Several turtles died before Riverkeeper Jeff Turner was instructed to destroy the trap. -- Jeff Turner | Tidewater News

Spirit of Moonpie and I spent the 2nd through the 4th on the Nottoway below the Narrows.

The water was clear, fast, high at 9.5 on the U.S. Geological Survey gauge in Sebrell and 63 degrees.

I saw no water quality issues other than the piles of trash.

This was my first land-based trip of the year, and I was so happy for the chilly cool weather, which seemed to defeat the skeeters pretty well out there.

The fishing on this trip was not good, at least for casting anyway. I only caught four really small bass. I did set limb-lines one night and caught two nice channel cats to 5 pounds. I also caught two blue cats; one was 19 pounds and the other was a monster 30-pounder! That’s the biggest catfish I have ever caught.

They were so big I decided to just let them go. They were just too big for me to handle by myself, and I was afraid the powerful fish would cause me to fillet myself.

I saw a bald eagle on this trip that looked like it had just turned adult. It was still kinda motley colored. I have never seen one at that stage with a white head. I imagine it had plenty to eat the last few weeks with all the dead fish everywhere from the hurricane fish-kill.

I also had the coyote experience this trip. Evidently there are two large packs that live on the backside of the Hand Site along the river.

I got some great recordings of them. (Click here to download the sound file.) It’s really weird, both nights they started up with their hauntingly eerie calls and screams at about 1 a.m. It is one of the wildest sounds I have ever heard on the river, and I would say it ranks right up there with the barred owls.

I huddled in my sleeping bag both nights — on the one hand just amazed at the plethora of sounds and voices and at the same time my hair was standing straight up because of the spooky factor.

Moonpie said I looked like Don King’s albino brother when the coyotes cranked up. I just hope they stay on the other side of the river. Right!

Well I hate reporting bad stuff like this, but this is how it is.

About a month ago, right after the Hurricane Irene, I found a large turtle trap on the Nottoway. It was half submerged and hung up on some logs. I contacted the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to report what I thought was an illegal trap.

Come to find out there is a turtle trapping season for our rivers that ended Oct. 1. VDGIF told me they were monitoring the commercial trapper. On Monday, the trap was still there, but now it was out of the water.

It was a sad scene to behold.

The trap had several turtles in it. There were many that were dead and the remaining turtles were in very bad shape. I guess the dead ones died a slow death from starvation.

I contacted the VDGIF again and was told to destroy the trap and dispose of it. So after letting the pitiful five living turtles out, I spent the next hour cutting up this 8-foot long trap, which was stinking, nasty hard work.

I asked VDGIF what would be done about this. The answer I received was not what I wanted to hear. They believe the trap was lost by the trapper during the recent high water-flood conditions in the river.

I also believe that to be the case. However, the trapper certainly knew he had a trap missing, and in my opinion, it was still his responsibility to retrieve the derelict trap. I mean it’s not like it was hard to find.

That’s the problem with any kind of device like this. When used properly, maintained and fished, they are not a problem. However there is just too much of a chance that something happens and the trap gets away, lost or whatever, and when that happens, they continue to trap.

Fish get trapped, die and draw turtles, otters and other critters in where they too, die. In my opinion, the trapper should be fined, and I don’t think turtle traps should be allowed in the rivers. After all, fish traps are not allowed for that very reason.

There are other ways to catch snapping turtles without using these death traps. I’ll be sending this edition of the Riverkeeper Report to Bob Duncan, director of VDGIF. Maybe, just maybe, his passion for what Virginia’s great fields and streams provide will prompt a movement to do away with these hoop-net traps in non-tidal inland rivers.

That would make Moonpie and I very happy on the two rivers we call the Nottoway and Blackwater.