The Fish Story

Hot Philly Bugs on Black Market; Rare Red Drum Need 500,000 Recruits

By JAY MANN | Oct 23, 2018

So, I get this odd email and a Huff Post news clipping from a gal who cohabitates Philly and LBI. Referencing my blogs on illegal wildlife trade, she passed on news of a theft from the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion. Thieves cleaned out more than 80 percent of the museum’s vibrant collection.

Nope, it wasn’t your standard art and sculptures heist. Instead, it was the grabbing of something like 7,000 insects, spiders and herptiles. Live ones, that is. This was one of those living-things “museums.”

Huff Post headlined the story, “A Bug’s Heist: Thousands Of Insects, Spiders Stolen From Philadelphia Museum,” sub-headed “It’s estimated that the stolen creepy crawlies are worth up to $50,000.”

Again, these were living, breathing buggers, meaning there had to be some serious handiwork in pulling off such a, well, creepy crawly theft.

For the museum’s owner, John Cambridge, every finger pointed to an inside job. In fact, he told police, the media and anyone who would listen that it was surely pulled off by folks close to the institution, as in employees. “We know exactly who did this. They snuck out the back with all these boxes. We caught them on camera,” Cambridge was quoted as saying. “They took all the stuff and then they didn’t show up for their shifts.”

As to the scope of the robbery, Cambridge said, “I’m not sure there’s ever been a larger live-insect heist.”

As to its value, that gets a tad elusive. Once loosed on the open market, the bugs and such would likely be sold one by one, which could garner that 50 gran, tops. But there would be swarms of black market bug bidders. Of that illegal trade, Cambridge said, “It’s a healthy, energetic industry and there are a lot of outlets for people to sell them.” Oddly, the museum owner is altruistically supporting the fencing, knowing the ugly option. “It’s unlikely the individuals who took them could provide the care these creatures need,” he told thedailybeast.com.

Of course, Cambridge wouldn’t overly despair if, in the interim, one or more of the thieves happened to bump into the wrong pilfered crawly. One of spiders is so poisonous its toxin is capable of melting away essential chunks of human skin and muscle.

This rip-off happened a while back and I can’t find any newer news on the capture of the perps. Maybe they all melted.

As to the museum recouping the value of its loss via insurance, Cambridge told CNN, “Our insurance doesn’t cover this. Why would they? This is unprecedented.”

As to that 50-gran ill-gotten profitability, that seems like a lot of effort for less than a year’s salary. What’s more, the thievery was a coordinated team effort, adding a divisor to the end take. Which is how I’ll default back to my ongoing illegal world trade in wildlife theme, suggesting there might be more to this than meets the mere American black-market eye. Should merely a few of the heist’s rarer breeds fill an insatiable Asian demand? You can add a zero to the heist’s worth, i.e. $500,000. Hey, I’ve been writing about that mark-up insanity.

I can’t resist adding some sheer weirdness to this tale. It comes from the initial police investigation, after it became apparent the crawly caper was pulled off by employees – or ex-employees, as the case may be. Per CNN, “Several of the thieves even left a bizarre calling card by sticking their uniforms to the wall with steak knives.” Whoa. One might half-wonder if the critters were pinched for use in, like, pagan rituals. To me, though, the steak knife showing also suggests ransomness. “We have your 7,000 insects and if you don’t want to get them back one leg at a time, we demand $50,000 … Wait, hold on a second, please. (Muffled) Well, then, how much do we want? … OK, I’m back and we want … (Muffled) Quiet! I’m on the frickin phone with the museum! … So, we demand one million dollars … in small bills – or else.”

If you’re moved to pity for the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, the museum has a GoFundMe page in hopes of covering some of the costs of replacing its creatures. Its ongoing theme for the facility is to “educate and engage people with the wonderful world of insects.” As to the wonderful world of employees …

A DIFFERENCE CATCH: A gorgeous 33-inch red drum was caught this week up Island Beach State Park way. It was released because it sized-in outside NJ’s keepable slot range between 18 and 27 inches. That slot precludes the breaking of the state record, which weighed in at 55 pounds, taken in 1985 by Daniel Yanino. It was caught in Great Bay.

We used to be gill-deep in red drum, until we purposely fished them to near extinction in Jersey waters. That species slaughter dates to a goodly time back, primarily the first half of the 20th century, when they were locally known as channel bass. That name would now garner a blank stare from most anglers.

In our channel bass heyday, it was an NJ fishery that easily outsized and greatly outnumbered striped bass. It even out-drummed places like North Carolina’s Outer Banks, now the epicenter of hardcore red drum angling. Then, the moronic madness began. The species was unfairly targeted as both a nuisance fish and a bane to shellfisheries. I’ve been told they were also attacked to make room for striped bass, though I’ve never read that in olden articles.

Whatever, they were hunted down with a vengeance. Many an archive photo shows dozens of huge channel bass, many over 50 pounds, hanging to rot in the sun. They were never eaten. In fact, they were thought too inedible for even pets. It was either off to the fertilizing fields with them … or into pits.

A quick ironic mention that red drum is now at the heart of blackened redfish, one of the most desirous meals in many areas of America, where it has been overfished for its flavor. Go figure.

Red drum is now strictly protected hereabouts. But that epitomizes too little too late. Any channel bass that made it through the decades of demolition soon faced decades of water deterioration. Unlike its rugged-ass brethren, the black drumfish, red drum are particularly sensitive to water quality. Per myfwc.com: “Since estuaries are such vital nursery grounds for red drum, we must realize that deterioration of water quality or loss of suitable habitat can have drastic effects on the number of young fish that survive into adulthood.”

It’s obvious very few are in fact surviving into adulthood, thus the coolness of that recent IBSP catch. Should a red drum beat the odds and live on, its life span can exceed 40 years. The IGFA record red drum, taken from North Carolina waters in 1983, was an amazing 60 inches long and scaled in at 94 pounds.

Which brings up our crippled local red drum population, which is holding on by a scale’s breadth. I have no doubt we could foster, in an eel-grass roots fish-farming effort, a new age of red drumedness. What’s more, fostering them would directly benefit those who foster. To understand this, ponder the lives and times of the species.

Unlike most of our gamefish, which travel far and wide, only occasionally homing in on NJ, red drum are very much homebodies. They seldom travel very far from where they were born. That’s of import because it squelches the possibility of North Carolina’s huge and healthy red drum stocks expanding our way to re-ignite the olden channel bass population hereabouts. We’re on our own when it comes to bringing back the drum.

Which brings the foster idea into full focus. If ever there was a species that can be grown solely for local fishing pleasure, it’s the stay-home red drum. What’s more, it is a prodigiously prolific fish once it hits spawning age. As to where breeding stock can be found, very strict species management nationwide assures there are plenty of reproductive redfish for hatcheries.

Get this: Bears Bluff National Fish Hatchery in South Carolina has begun producing red drum fingerlings, hoping to rebuild the state’s local populations, heavily damaged by a surge of overfishing. Again, red drum have become a beloved foodstuff. The hatchery is farming approximately 500,000 fingerling red drum annually. They are placed in a local estuary system near Wadmalaw Island, SC. The impact of the release is now being studied to the hilt. I’ll bet the morning eggs and grits there will be a positive repopulating outcome.

Now, imagine 500,000 farmed red drum being placed into some of the purest waters in the nation: The Mullica River Estuary System, NJ. Hey, we already know those waters work for red drum, both historically and lately. The 55-pound state record was taken as recently as 1985. There is something mighty redfish-friendly in those waters. A seeded population there would feed redfish into areas like Great Bay, Little Egg Harbor/Inlet and potentially all of Barnegat Bay.

Why am I suddenly calling them redfish? For good reason. I think that name has slowly come to mean red drum in the edible 18- to 28-inch range. If we hold to that slot, the 500,000 hatched red drum loosed into the Mullica could prosper far into the future. And add a totally local species to our admittedly limited gamefish variety.

One final note: Baymen please don’t fear a return of the red drum. They are far more aggressive forage-fish feeders than black drum, plus you already have the screening to place over seeded beds.

DESPERATELY SEEKING SUPPORT: The Jersey Coast Angler Association has issued a red “ALERT!” It is going all out to fight/block a proposed opening of a portion of the EEZ (three miles to 230 statutory miles off the beach) to recreational fishing for striped bass. The contentious area is off Block Island. While the zone is small in a big-vista view, it’s that old opening the box theory worrying the JCAA.

“We fear that opening a portion of the EEZ to striper fishing could be the equivalent of opening Pandora’s box. We understand that the current proposed rule would open the BITZ only to recreational fishermen. However, if that were to happen, the next proposal might be to open it to commercial fishing as well. Further, we understand that this proposal is being considered because it is in a ‘unique area.’ Well, there are other ‘unique areas’ along the East Coast as well. … The next thing you know, there might be a proposal to open the EEZ in its entirety to striped bass fishing. We are adamantly opposed to that!”

I’ll second that emotion by admitting that I’d want the same, uh, EEZ courtesy for waters off Little Egg Inlet, which get only a fraction of the near-in bassing perks of many other regions.

This striper issue offers some in-house intrigue, as recreationalists oppose other recreationalists.

In the end – and not that anyone gives a rat’s patootie – I’m fully on-board with this effort to maintain the current EEZ regs as they stand – keeping it a striped bass conservation zone. While using the term “conservation zone” is generally forbidden in the angling realm, the EEZ-focused ban on striped bass harvesting is just that.

I’ll go provocatively afield even as I back the ban. Might allowing anglers to go farther out – beyond the state’s three-mile waters – reduce the intense near-in boat stripering done in NJ waters? Might removing pressure on Jersey bass allow more of the striped-ones to inch toward the surfline? Nah. It remains the lack of foodstuff within LBI shoreline areas that has fouled our surfcasting piece of the striped bass pie.

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