Terrapin stew was a regular part of South Jersey’s diet through the 19th Century until the little sharp-clawed turtles crawled off the local menu.

Now state officials fear South Jersey’s terrapins are finding new fans in Asian markets that might be too hungry for the turtle’s good.

The state Department of Environmental Protection closed the harvest of diamondback terrapins a month early after finding evidence of turtle poaching for an international market.

Commissioner Bob Martin signed an administrative order this week immediately ending this year’s commercial harvest, which normally runs from Nov. 1 to March 31 while the turtles are hibernating under estuary mud.

The DEP found two examples last year where terrapins were being taken from marshes in South Jersey for out-of-state aquaculture to feed the demand for turtle meat in China.

Investigators found 3,500 terrapins harvested from South Jersey marshes at the Maryland facility. Conservation officers later intercepted 800 out-of-season terrapins bound for the same turtle market.

Diamondback terrapins are medium-sized aquatic turtles that owe their name to the diamond patterns on their hard, yellowish shell.

New Jersey does not require a commercial permit or license to harvest terrapins. But DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said the state wants to know more about native populations before a commercial harvest resumes.

“It’s a small, very specialized fishery. We need a better understanding of what’s being harvested and who’s doing the harvesting,” he said.

New Jersey has seen several other examples of poaching for out-of-state and international markets, particularly with tautog and glass eels. The state plans to step up law enforcement against poachers and will invest more resources into research, Hajna said.

Terrapin stew was a regular menu item in South Jersey through Prohibition, when a key ingredient – sherry – was outlawed with other libations.

“They realized how disgusting it is without the sherry. So Prohibition was good for terrapins,” said Brian Williamson, a research scientist at the Wetlands Institute in Middle Township.

Today, terrapin stew is just a memory at local restaurants.

Chef Tyson Merryman of the Tuckahoe Inn said he learned how to make a tasty soup from snapping turtles as a young cook in Pennsylvania.

“They’re scary. The chef would tease the turtle to get it to stick out its neck and then cut its head off,” he said.

Then he would add veal stock, tomato, lemon, Tabasco and chopped eggs, among other ingredients.

But Merryman said he wouldn’t dream of cooking up the tiny terrapins that nest on the beaches surrounding his Great Egg Harbor Bay restaurant.

“I’ve never eaten one,” he said. “I mean, I don’t want to eat you. I want to take you home and pet you.”

Turtle meat is in higher demand in the United States as native supplies of turtles dwindle in parts of Asia, Williamson said.

“It’s probably something that has been going on in the shadows for some time. The problem is because there’s no regulation, there’s no report on the number of terrapins harvested,” he said.

The Wetlands Institute is the foremost authority on terrapins in New Jersey, leading research and education. It has aquariums of terrapins that instructors take to schools and festivals for demonstrations.

Each summer the institute’s volunteers and staff salvage the unbroken eggs of terrapins that are struck by cars and later release the hatchlings into the marshes.

Williamson said New Jersey investigators grew suspicious about the Maryland facility when they found gravid females. Terrapins typically do not carry fertilized eggs through hibernation.

Also the sheer number of New Jersey terrapins at the facility raised suspicion since collecting hibernating terrapins is difficult and time-consuming during the legal winter harvest.

To survive the winter, the terrapins bury themselves in the mud at the bottom of creeks where they are protected from the cold.

Williamson said the institute supports the harvest closure while it conducts more research. The institute is in the midst of a survey that tracks females that return to the same marshes each spring to lay their eggs.

There is still much more to learn, he said.

“We need to conduct the survey on a larger scale than just Cape May County,” he said.

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