To the trained eye, it was clear Kevin Courts and Michael Riff were illegal terrapin harvesters.
The Hatboro, Pennsylvania, men, one shirtless, were parked next to a marsh off Sea Isle Boulevard last July, with six nets and a long pole leaning against their green truck, the state said. A conservation officer who approached them spotted a turtle crawling under the driver’s side seat and found a cooler packed with hatchlings.
“They were dressed the part and driving the part,” said Jason Snellbaker, captain of the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Law Enforcement, as he described the incident Tuesday.
Riff and Courts, who each pleaded guilty in Upper Township Municipal Court to taking 21 terrapins and paid $2,000 fines, are the only people charged by the state since a bill banning diamondback terrapin possession went into effect in 2016, the Department of Environmental Protection said.
Officials suspected the two planned to sell the turtles on the illegal wildlife market, which spans the entire U.S. coast and is worth $19 billion annually, according to a report by TRAFFIC, a nongovernmental organization that monitors the wildlife trade.
New Jersey’s terrapins are stolen form marshes to be bought as pets, said Ben Wurst, habitat program manager for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. Smugglers also export them overseas to Asia, where they’re used as food.
“There’s always going to be somebody who’s looking to make money by illegally harvesting a species,” Wurst said. “There’s still a market for them.”
Diamondback terrapins, abundant in Cape May and Atlantic counties’ coastal marshes, are sold for anywhere from $8 a piece to hundreds of dollars for more ornate ones, Snellbaker said. An ex-journalist from Levittown, Pennsylvania, recently pleaded guilty to trafficking thousands of protected turtles from New Jersey and selling them for $530,000 over a number of years.
In 2015, the state temporarily ended its harvest season for diamondback terrapins after a federal investigation revealed a Hamilton Township man, Frank Mazzeo, allegedly sold more than 3,000 wild adult terrapins to a Maryland farm using a dredge, Snellbaker said. People were using loopholes in existing regulations to catch hundreds of turtles a day. A year later, legislators passed a law making the diamondback terrapin a nongame species and essentially ended that out-in-the-open practice.
“I’ve never seen a bill get passed that quickly,” Snellbaker said.
But enforcing the legislation is tough.
There are only four officers in Atlantic and Cape May counties to police each port and hundreds of acres of expansive marshes.
Another issue: Night is when turtle thieves usually come out. Headlights from conservation officers’ vehicles can be seen from miles away, and alert poachers to put away their gear, Snellbaker said. Sometimes, officers station themselves in areas known to be trafficked and simply wait.
Gathering enough evidence to prove poachers are selling the turtles also takes time, and court battles can drag out. After four years, Mazzeo only recently settled his case for $6,000, Snellbaker said. Mazzeo did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
“There are hundreds of places it could occur,” Snellbaker said. “It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”
Fines for skirting the ban can be up to $25,000 per day for each violation, but it is determined on a case-by-case basis. The state can look at any economic benefits the poacher gained while assessing penalties, according to the statute.
The public can help though, Snellbaker said. It was a concerned citizen who reported the two Hatboro men who were grabbing terrapins in Upper Township.
“We get calls from people,” he said. “It’s important the public keep its eyes and ears open.”
Any suspicious activity can be reported to the Department of Environmental Protection’s 24-hour action line at 877-WARN-DEP.