The Fish Story

Poacher Gets Fried in Court; Balloon Wash-ups Hit Milestone

By JAY MANN | Oct 29, 2019
Photo by: Jay Mann NOT HUGE: Small bayside schoolie bass have had to suffice for many striper-starved anglers driven from the surf by rough conditions.

NOW, THAT’S A FINE!: A recent SandPaper story told of some poached diamondback terrapins. No, not poached as in slowly cooked. These were terrapins involved in what was likely the largest bust of its kind in the nation. It took place over in Pennsylvania in 2017. A few of the ill-gotten reptiles were being rather ceremoniously released back into the wilds down Tuckerton/Little Egg Harbor way.

The original bust heavily involved the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. According to that agency, state conservation police officers were involved in a joint investigation with the Federal Fish & Wildlife Service regarding an individual, David Sommers, who was suspected of poaching diamondback terrapin eggs from nests in Ocean County, hatching them back home in PA, and then selling them online. He was also accused of capturing a passel of grown terrapins.

The combined cop force nailed him, big time – which was the size of his clandestine enterprise.

Just to show the extent of Sommers’ poach-and-sell ways, when popped by state and federal authorities raiding his residence, 4,300 terrapin hatchlings were discovered and seized. As to how many had already gone the way of eBay, that number wasn’t computed because Sommers copped a plea before heavy lifting was begun on determining how extensive his eBaying activities had been. And the plea didn't lead to a mere hand-slap punishment, as you’ll see.

I recall that the initial word of the bust’s magnitude put our many dedicated terrapin protectors and perpetuators into full-auto rage. Imagine those conservational folks heroically gathering, hatching and releasing hundreds of baby terrapins to then read this one man was furtively snatching thousands to sell. Picture Sommers being released into the hands of terrapin lovers, likely fostering an entire generation of terrapins with a taste for human burgers.

There’s no imagining the monetary gains involved here, or the mortality rate of mailed hatchlings. The feds were likely involved not only because this criminal enterprise crossed state lines, but had Sommers used the U.S. Postal Service, there would have been added legal hell to pay, though Mr. Sommers would soon be paying plenty enough.

Caught in the act – and with terrapin egg on his face, figuratively – Sommers had no choice but to admit that he was a poacher to the nth degree. His admission of guilt included disclosing from whence his terrapins and terrapins-to-be (eggs) came, namely, our nape of the coastline, down Tuckerton way.

While his hot terrapin selling business had him swimming in dough, he was about to find out how hot under the collar the legal system can get when it comes to the wholesale poaching of terrapins. Who woulda guessed? Whereas many fish poaching busts end up with perps receiving what many of us feel are insignificant hand-slap fines, Sommers accepted a plea agreement in Philadelphia Federal District Court that was anything but merely slappy. Get this: He will serve six months in lockup, three years of supervised release – surely being watched for any trips toward Jersey – and (stunner alert) must pay NJ Fish and Wildlife restitution in the amount of $250,000.

You read right: a quarter-million bucks. That’s a lot of terrapins, which he won’t be illegally selling again.

Might he be allowed to raise legally gotten terrapins, which apparently can be done? I’m wondering how else he’ll otherwise pay those 250,000 big ones.

Not being privy to the details of the case or the plea agreement, I can only guess the fervid effort by the public to repopulate our waters with terrapins galore might have played into the severity of the punishment. I’m not complaining, mind you.

Thinking more humanely, I’m guessing the fines will be paid in agreed-upon, possibly smallish monthly increments … ad infinitum.

CPO BLOTTER: While on the subject of the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s enforcement folks, I’ll harken back to a case of shark poachers being caught by CPOs. The illegal anglers were in possession of three juvenile sandbar sharks, what we just as often call brown sharks.

This bust is of extra import since so much ado has been made of illegally fishing sharks. But this case was far more than merely bycatching and releasing a protected species. The police report, written up by Detective Harp and Conservation Police Officer Meyer, states, “CPOs observed the individuals remove the heads, internals, and partially fillet the sharks before placing them in a bucket.”

As the CPOs moved in for the kill, the illegal shark-takers got wind of them and tried to stash their cartilaginous loot. “They hid the shark carcasses in the marsh and denied having caught anything,” per the report. Nice try, guys, but that spur-of-the-moment stashing of the evidence constituted interfering with the duties of a CPO when the observant officers easily recovered the shark portions.

Along with summonses for CPO interference and the taking of a prohibited species, they got hit with wanton waste … and littering. The officers found “multiple beer cans and trash left by the individuals.”

Another angler bust with a vaguely laughable twist came about when CPO Raker observed a fisherman on a Reed’s Beach jetty who “caught multiple undersized striped bass and weakfish, cut their tails off, and deposited them into a shallow pool in the rocks.”

As Raker approached the man to make an apprehension, the angler tried to throw the fish in the bay. Lo and behold, the officer quite easily gathered up the launched fish. How so? The fish had no frickin’ tails! What, you thought they would swim off, poacher numbnuts?

The scooped fish included six undersized striped bass and one undersized weakfish. The tail-chopper was saddled with a somewhat rare charge of “mutilating marine finfish.” I never heard of that one. The man was also cited for taking undersized fish and being well over the bass bag limit. He also got the good-old “interference with the duties of a Conservation Police Officer” for his attempt to get his tail-less fish to swim off.

I need to pass on another bust. This one hints at the ineffectiveness of some fines and citations. CPOs were patrolling the train tracks that run through Brielle, stopping to surveil a group of four men “actively fishing” on a railroad bridge notorious for illegal bassing. When the men departed at a noticeably speedy clip, they ran into the unloving arms of the awaiting law. Two of the men were each found in possession of eight undersized striped bass.

But here’s that more telling part: It was the fourth time one of the men had been caught for the same stripering violations. I see that as living proof there’s enough profit in the clandestine marketing of poached fish to easily cover the costs of even repeated fines.

BASSING IS BETTERING: The fall arrival of keepable stripers has begun. It is starting to rock hearty for boat anglers, though it’s far from an earnest bite for surfcasters. It’s a-comin,’ yo. Now if we can only catch a weather break. No sooner does the surf drop from one blow than a new blow is upon us.

Despite early-week northeast winds, the riled surfline is clean enough for bait fishing, with thicker meat rods. Plugging will be a bit tougher, but that’s always the case.

I have noticed a few of the early weigh-ins for the Classic have been caught on artificials, including jigged plastics. If you’re going with a known-winner shad plastic, keep it large-sized and white. In fact, any white bucktail serves the plugging/artificial cause when working riled waters.

PLUGGING AWAY AT HISTORY: Old-time Beachcomber columnist Dick Clements laid the groundwork for my oft out-there columns. He would go well off the fishing mark to write about stuff that affected life in these-here parts. He also wrote copiously on topics that just struck him as being so weird they just needed to be columnized upon. Thanks for your out-there guidance, Dick.

I bring up my mentor after reading the Oct. 19, 1956 issue of Derby News, a special product of The Beachcomber published during the Striped Bass Derby. Regarding plugging for stripers, he lightheartedly elevates it to a cosmic experience:

“A method of fishing becomes the badge of office: After a long and arduous apprenticeship as a surf fishermen, the true believer sometimes takes the giant leap and becomes a lure fishermen. From this point heretofore he will fish with bait with ill-concealed distaste, and will tend to look with condescension upon all who do. And at this point he usually passes not the highest realm of all. He becomes a BASS FISHERMAN.”

I’m not certain his “lure” philosophy is what got me obsessed with artificials; my dad was also hugely into throwing lures. But Dick might have played a role, seeing I read him going back to the Fifties. By the by, I hold no condescension for chunk fishermen, who generally out-fish plug-tossers by a mile. But I just have such a hard time casting and waiting … and waiting and waiting. And I’m certain Dick also had a touch of AD/HD.

MOLA-MOLA AHOY!: A major mola-mola, aka ocean sunfish, has been seen doing its thing in Manahawkin Bay. Its thing is pretty much just drifting around being annoyed at how carelessly fast jellyfish move. This is not a fast-moving fish, especially when it reaches its max size of over 2,000 pounds, making it the largest boned fish in the world. Sharks have cartilage, not bones. Whales are mammals.

This off-course ocean voyager undoubtedly got blown into the bay by recent nor’easters. It’s the third such mola blow-in in recent years.

Per a Maritime Museum post: “This mola-mola, estimated to be about 300 pounds, was sighted in the bay off 30th Street in Ship Bottom by Joe Gorman and Ed Derbyshire. Another party aboard a nearby pontoon boat also witnessed this as it made its way back into the channel. This happened this past Friday, Oct. 25th at around 3 pm. …”

Despite its far from breakneck speed, the Barnegat Bay mola has covered a lot of water in recent weeks, garnering excited reports along the way, as it has currented along. Where it goes, nobody knows. Wishfully thinking, northerly winds might push it south and possibly out Little Egg Inlet. It’s hard to determine if it’s actively eating or living off fat reserves packed on during richer ocean days/years.

BALLOON UGLINESS: I reached a dubious milestone last week down Holgate way. If you care to celebrate facetiously with me, feel free to rapturously cheer on my finding the 50th balloon in a little over a month! Maybe I’ll have some mylar balloons made up to mark the occasion.

Yes, I have occasionally zipped onto the fringes of the refuge to grab those destructive pieces of celebratory junk. But after seeing the damage they can do – as much by the attached ribbons as by the balloons themselves – I feel compelled to go the extra mile – as in the extra yards – to get them out of the ecosystem. If you followed the remarkable osprey cam in Barnegat Light last spring, you saw a parent osprey bring a balloon ribbon into the nest. While it can be laughably said it was to brighten things up, the nest’s human guardian had to take ladder action to make sure the young hatchling didn’t become enwraptured. That was just a single example of the dangers of feral balloons.

On Monday, I chatted with a Holgate buggyist who recently collected 12 balloons in the same area. My monumental count first took off when I scooped up 21 in one day. It’s well known that balloons tend to flock together, often reflecting the size of the celebration from which they took flight.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.