The diamondback terrapin has a lot of friends at the Jersey Shore.
Several dozen people volunteer for work by the Margate Terrapin Rescue Project installing turtle barriers along marsh roads to keep them from getting hit by cars. When pregnant terrapins looking to dig a nest and lay eggs wander onto pavement in other places, many drivers stop and even help them cross.
Numerous schoolchildren have cared for rescued baby turtles until they’re big enough to release. Others have helped create nesting habitat for them along back bays.
Yet New Jersey long remained a state where wild terrapins could be taken and sold as pets or to eat. In 2013, turtle fans were outraged when a federal investigation found a commercial dredger taking 3,500 overwintering diamondback terrapins from South Jersey and selling them to a Maryland facility for shipment to Asian markets as food.
That helped ensure the success in 2016 of longtime efforts to protect diamondback terrapins. At the urging of Jersey Shore schoolchildren, local legislators proposed and got enacted a law designating the terrapin a nongame species, making it illegal to hunt or catch them.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t ended illegal commercial use of the turtles, which are in decline throughout their range.
This month, David Sommers of Levittown, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty in federal court after investigators found he had sold 3,500 Jersey Shore terrapins for a total of more than $530,000. Last year a search of his home found 3,442 terrapins and 23 box turtles, court documents say.
Last July, Kevin Courts and Michael Riff, both of Hatboro, Pennsylvania., were caught poaching 21 diamondback terrapins in the marsh along Sea Isle Boulevard to sell on the illegal wildlife market. They each pleaded guilty in Upper Township Municipal Court and paid $2,000 fines.
It’s not easy to catch turtle poachers, who often work at night, so the enforcement is welcome. However, prosecutors should seek larger penalties to ensure would-be violators are discouraged and don’t just write off the fines as a cost of doing business.
Sommers, for example, originally was charged with six counts, including smuggling, when he was indicted last July. But prosecutors allowed him to plead guilty to a single count of false labeling for a package of live turtles he sold and shipped to Canada. That hardly seems appropriate for making more than half a million dollars in the illegal turtle trade.
What’s worse, New Jersey wildlife officers once caught Sommers gathering terrapins and their eggs, advised him that it was illegal and let him go. Maybe enforcement by the state Department of Environmental Protection is as half-hearted as its previous porous protection of the turtles.
Friends of the turtles can help by reporting suspicious activity around the marshes at night, especially with nets and poles, and in the spring nesting season along sandy strips near the water. A tip from a concerned citizen led to Courts and Riff being caught poaching. Call the DEP’s 24-hour action line at 877-WARN-DEP.