South Jersey’s signature turtle, the diamondback terrapin, unfortunately has become coveted as a delicacy by Asian food markets. The decimation of baby American eels (sometimes called glass eels) and bluefin tuna to supply those markets shows the threat the beach-nesting terrapins now face.
That’s why the state Department of Environmental Protection wanted to take credit for protecting the turtles last week when it ended the season for taking them a couple of months early.
We’re not buying it.
We think the DEP is trying to determine how much plunder of South Jersey turtles for the Asian markets it can allow without threatening the species’ existence.
Last year the DEP also cut short the open season on terrapins, at the urging of the N.J. Marine Fisheries Council. Both acted after discovering that thousands of South Jersey turtles had been taken – an unknown number probably illegally – for a Maryland processor shipping tens of thousands to Asia.
That should have been enough to alert state officials to the danger to the terrapins. But instead, the DEP allowed what it calls turtle « harvesting » to begin as usual on Nov. 1 and continue for three months. DEP Commissioner Bob Martin didn’t provide an estimate of how many turtles had been taken during those months when he announced the shortening of terrapin season.
We think the volunteers who install the short fences to keep the terrapins safe from road traffic will be upset to discover some of the turtles they’re saving are being caught, exported and eaten under a state program.
So will the many drivers who stop to avoid hitting a terrapin in search of a nest spot and even carry them across the street sometimes.
Who’s going to tell the many schoolchildren raising terrapins from the eggs of road-killed females that some they release into back bays might wind up in soup on the other side of the world? Classes in Galloway Township helping restore the terrapin population asked legislators to make the diamondback terrapin the state reptile.
Students at Manahawkin’s Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science had an even better idea: Give the terrapins the same protection enjoyed by songbirds, bats and many other forms of wildlife people appreciate.
The kids persuaded legislators in the region to sponsor a bill to protect diamondback terrapins as a nongame, indigenous species. The measure was approved unanimously in May by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, but then stalled.
Maybe legislators waited to give the DEP a chance. They should reintroduce the bill in the current session and get it passed, before the DEP formalizes a program to let Far East markets eat turtles that South Jersey people are working hard to protect.
The DEP itself acknowledged that many other states have made taking terrapins illegal in response to Asian demand for them. New Jersey should too.