Frank Mazzeo, an independent fisherman, wears a baseball hat with a simple message: “Eat. Sleep. Fish.”
He makes most of his living through fishing and trapping, and has done so for the past 20 years. Mostly, he focuses on bait fishing, like for minnows and eel. But for the last three winters, he’s been harvesting diamondback terrapins.
“This right now is my prime time,” he said. “I should be out there getting turtles.”
Mazzeo can’t harvest terrapins now, as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection cut the season short by about a month in the beginning of March. An administrative order from DEP Commissioner Bob Martin shut down the season March 1, and the agency cited increased illegal harvesting of the diamondback terrapin as a key reason for the moratorium.
According to the DEP, Mazzeo was a part of an operation that was shut down by conservation officers for illegally harvesting hundreds of terrapins for an out-of-state aquaculture facility. At the facility, the terrapins are then raised for markets overseas-Asia in particular.
Mazzeo, along with his son and nephew, were issued more than two dozen citations for the harvesting. But he claims he was following the law, and wouldn’t knowingly break it in front of his family.
“I don’t want to be the villain,” the Hamilton Township resident said. “I don’t want to see the terrapins disappear.”
Despite several efforts to save declining terrapin populations in recent years, New Jersey is one of the few states that still allows their harvest. The season typically runs from Nov. 1 to March 31. There’s no limit as to how many terrapins one person can harvest, or where they can be sold. There are no licenses required to harvest terrapins commercially or independently. However, their bottom shell length has to be at least 5 inches and there are regulations about what equipment can be used to harvest them.
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said that what made Mazzeo’s harvesting illegal was that the turtles were caught using a dredge pulled behind a boat. Restrictions on terrapin harvesting include using a trap, pot, fyke, seine, weir, or net of any description.
Hajna also said the only legal way to harvest terrapins is by hand. Mazzeo said the rules he received did not include that provision, and so he thought the dredge was legal. He said he only found out about the by-hand regulation after he was charged.
The moratorium, Hajna said, will give the DEP time to understand just how many people are harvesting the creatures and what impact those harvesters are having on the terrapin population.
“We don’t know how many people are out there who make their living doing this, and that’s one of things we want to get our arms around through this closure,” he said. “(Terrapins) are not listed as threatened or endangered, but we know it faces a number of ecological threats. Like any species, when you have a concern, you take a pause and apply the appropriate science.”
But to Mazzeo, the closure of the season has been a severe blow to his livelihood. His three children are all in college, and to cover bills and Christmas this year, he had to take out a personal loan. Now, he has fronted about $1,000 to pay for a lawyer to fight his citations.
The terrapins typically are sold for between $4 and $8 apiece, and he said he brought in 450 on his best day.
He was cited Dec. 23 for illegally harvesting the terrapins, and was unable to get back on the water due to the ice and snow this winter. To hold him over through the season, he bought a log splitter and has been chopping firewood. His court date is set for April.
“It’s kind of a rough life,” he said of how he makes his living. “But it’s what I love to do. It’s all I have right now.”
Lisa Ferguson, director of research and conservation for the Wetlands Institute, said her agency supports a complete ban on the harvesting of terrapins.
“We believe it’s a species that needs the highest level of protection that the state can afford it,” she said. “There are constant threats and pressures to the population that are a challenge to resolve or mitigate.”
She pointed to terrapins being struck on the roadways, as well as getting stuck in crab traps, as some of the threats affecting the species, besides harvesting.
Some regulations, Mazzeo said, would be welcome. He said he would support the creation of licenses, as well as a restriction on the number that can be caught. An all-out ban, however, he wouldn’t get behind.
“Just because nobody around here eats them doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for them,” he said.
Contact Christie Rotondo: