MARGATE TURTLES

Researcher Kim Lull, of Mays Landing, and Bill Doughty, of Northfield install a section of the newer-styled turtle barrier along the Margate Causeway road, Friday April 24, 2015, in Margate. The Margate Terrapin Rescue Project needs $7500 to install the new barriers.

It's springtime and South Jersey's favorite turtle, the diamondback terrapin, will soon emerge from back bays and creeks to lay eggs in sand or soft earth above the tide line.

As usual, the terrapins' many fans are working to welcome them and reduce the sad occasions when pregnant turtles wander onto roadways and are crushed.

An Eagle Scout last month helped create two turtle nesting islands behind the Sea Isle City library. They're part of a Historical Society Memorial Garden that also got new plants and a water feature.

Earlier this month, 85 volunteers for the Margate Terrapin Rescue Project - including 20 from the Vineland High School Interact Club - installed and repaired barriers along the side of the Margate Causeway to keep terrapins from getting onto the road.

For nine years the organization has worked to counter terrapin habitat loss and reduce roadway mortality. When nest-seeking terrapins reach the insurmountable barrier, they turn back from the highway and dig nests on the marsh side.

Then last week, the state Department of Environmental Protection suspended indefinitely the harvest season for diamondback terrapins. That might seem like good news to the thousands of terrapin supporters in the region, but it is more suspicious than good.

For starters, the DEP could decide at any time to allow harvesting of terrapins to resume. Its track record suggests it can't be trusted to fully protect them.

In 2013, a turtle harvester used a commercial dredge to take 3,500 overwintering diamondback terrapins from two South Jersey locations - and sold them to a Maryland facility for shipment to Asian markets.

The DEP's response? The next year it allowed the terrapin harvest to proceed, and then after several months ended it a bit early. We said then the state was wrong to simply manage the terrapin population and its exploitation, and should protect the turtles permanently like other treasured wildlife species in New Jersey.

And the year after that? The DEP allowed another terrapin harvest, and ended that early as well.

Allowing South Jersey terrapins to be harvested and sold for soup and as pets is unacceptable.

Maryland doesn't do it - it enacted a law prohibiting the harvest of terrapins in 2007, which is why its processor grabbed South Jersey turtles for profit. Connecticut also bans their harvesting and collection.

We think the latest DEP pause in terrapin harvesting, while it "develops management strategies," is an attempt to stop the permanent protection of diamondback terrapins that is working its way through the state Legislature.

At the urging of students at Manahawkin's Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science, state legislators representing Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland counties sponsored a bill to designate the turtles as a nongame species, which would make it illegal to hunt or catch them.

In March, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee unanimously voted in favor of the bill. In April, the state Assembly passed the bill unanimously.

The full Senate should approve this permanent protection for diamondback terrapins, and Gov. Christie should sign it into law.

The state DEP has lost credibility on terrapin protection, and the Christie administration will too if it thwarts the level of protection other states have provided.

Our view

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