An ongoing investigation into an elaborate scheme to counterfeit state-issued tags for spiny lobster traps has pulled in a second suspect.
Jesus Alonso Perez, 51, of Miami was charged with possession of phony trap tags after his arrest last week by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers in Miami-Dade County.
Perez is the first person arrested in the case since Ramon Rojas, 44, of Hialeah was arrested on Monroe County and Miami-Dade warrants earlier this month.
Rojas has been charged with dozens of conservation counts for possessing and using fake trap tags, and fishing traps without required state certificates. A handful of Rojas' personal traps bearing counterfeit trap tags were hauled from water off Big Pine Key before his arrest.
"During the investigation, we were able to determine [Rojas] actually was in the midst of selling some of these counterfeit tags and ended up selling 100 at $50 a pop," said FWC Officer Jorge Pino, an agency spokesman. "We knew some of these tags were being used already."
The case could lead to additional state and federal counts.
Investigation started June 29 when U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents intercepted a suspicious package shipped to Florida from Colombia.
Inside the package were 1,512 yellow plastic tags bearing serial numbers and state identification. The package was passed along to federal wildlife officers, who forwarded it to the FWC.
"To an untrained eye, they might have looked like real tags but our inspector immediately identified the tags as counterfeit," Pino said. "Not to mention, they were coming into Florida from Colombia."
The package was re-sealed for delivery, with FWC officers keeping watch. Other details on the investigation are still considered confidential.
"We've seen counterfeit trap tags before so that wasn't a surprise," Pino said. "We were a little surprised at the lengths he went to, going to another country to get this many."
"This goes contrary to everything the FWC is trying to achieve as a conservation agency in terms of protecting the resource," Pino said. "Putting what could have been a large number of illegal traps in the water has the potential to do a lot of damage."
Trap tags have been required by the state since 1992 as part of an effort to control and reduce the number of traps used by Florida commercial fishermen. Currently about 490,000 tags are issued annually, down from a peak of 750,000. Lobstermen receive an allocation of tags based on their history of commercial trap harvests.
People who want to enter the fishery or increase their trap numbers must buy trap certificates, which include the right to buy trap tags, from other fishermen. A tag itself costs only $1 each from the state but certificates can sell for more than $100 each.