It is no longer legal to catch or harvest diamondback terrapins in New Jersey.

Legislation to protect the brackish water terrapins, a species of turtle native to New Jersey and other coastal states, became law Friday when Governor Chris Christie signed it.

The law, S-1625, designates the diamondback terrapin as a nongame indigenous species, subject to laws, rules and regulations of the “The Endangered and Nongame Species Conservation Act,” according to sponsor Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic/Cape May/Cumberland). 

It is expected to save tens of thousands of turtles a year, giving a boost to the scientists, nonprofit workers, volunteers and students who have actively campaigned to end terrapin harvesting.

Researchers have warned for years that the terrapin population was diminishing due to habitat loss and road mortality. Hundreds of females are hit by cars on South Jersey roads each year as they seek upland nests.

Commercial harvesting had increased in recent years, mostly to serve the Asian trade.

In 2013, more than 3,500 terrapins were taken from two South Jersey locations and provided to an out of state facility that raises them for overseas markets. More than 14,000 offspring of the adult terrapins were then exported to Asia, the DEP said.

Other nearby states, including Maryland, had already banned the harvesting of diamondback terrapins.

While the terrapin season was cut short by the Department of Environmental Protection for the last two years, because of concerns about too many turtles being taken,  environmentalists and researchers had argued that move wasn't enough to protect them.

The DEP this year proposed a regulation to close the harvesting of diamondback terrapins in New Jersey indefinitely, but it could have been reversed.

"We need to protect them and to restore their population, and making the ban permanent under state law will ensure the effort to conserve the species and its habitats is something the state will undertake long-term,” said Van Drew.

Under the law, it is now illegal to catch or take diamondback terrapins in New Jersey. The law also requires that the Commissioner of Environmental Protection conduct biological and ecological data research on the State’s diamondback terrapin population and determine measures to ensure the conservation of the species’ population.

The bill was approved in the Senate with a vote of 37-0. It passed the Assembly by a vote of 71-0. The legislation was signed into law Friday and takes effect immediately.

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