Marguerite Whilden, a former state fisheries planner who runs a nonprofit group called the Terrapin Institute, said Lewis' new turtle farm -- and his ability to buy thousands of wild terrapin over the summer -- shows that the state's new regulations have backfired. "That's a huge mistake, to allow that type of wildlife farming on a huge scale," Whilden said.
She is pushing a moratorium on catching all terrapin, a measure proposed by state Del. Virginia Clagett last spring. A task force of experts assembled by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 2001 suggested a moratorium, but the Ehrlich administration instead imposed the current regulations.
Don Webster, a University of Maryland agriculture specialist, said the state should encourage breeding operations like Lewis' because they could boost turtle populations and help struggling watermen. "Aquaculture takes pressure off the natural resource, and provides the product at times when it's not available from the wild," Webster said.
Although Lewis has the only turtle farm in Maryland, he's not the state's first terrapin magnate.
In 1887, a Crisfield turtle rancher named Albert T. Lavallette Jr. used marketing savvy and a recipe for Caribbean turtle soup to transform terrapin from a food eaten only by slaves and Indians into a delicacy on the menus of East Coast restaurants, according to an article in Chesapeake Bay Magazine.
A University of Maryland football coach, Crisfield native Curley Byrd, nicknamed his team the terrapins in 1932 after his region's famous reptile. Then the industry collapsed, rising again only recently.
Although the main market for food today is China, diamondbacks are also sold as pets in the U.S. over the Internet, and terrapin soup is still served in at least one local dining room, the Maryland Club in Baltimore.
Lewis gave a tour of his reptilian plantation on a recent morning, showing off the 50-acre farm where his grandfather once slaughtered hogs to make scrapple. He walked around the ponds containing not only about 2,200 terrapin, but also 1,300 snapping turtles, 3,000 eastern painted turtles and about 400 red-bellies.
Lewis kicked the chicken wire ringing the largest lagoon, then stepped back. A huge snapping turtle, bristling with horns, bumps and dried mud, shot out its long neck. The pink mouth gaped like a snake's, and its beak snapped near his boot.
He laughed. "I like snappers so much, my wife tells me I'm like a snapping turtle."
He picked up a smaller terrapin. Its horny jaw seemed to bend into a smile. "These are pretty gentle turtles, the diamondback," he said.
Beside his cinderblock barn is a pile of turtle traps, fashioned from metal hoops and netting. Inside is a small hatchery, built from plywood, with shelves, stacks of clear plastic boxes, electric baseboard heaters and an air conditioner.
He said his wife this spring dug scores of pinkish-white, leathery terrapin eggs from the mud around the pond. Then she placed them in the plastic containers, which the couple kept warm until they hatched.
"We are sending the babies to China -- thousands and thousands and thousands," Lewis said.