A Coast Guard crew from Station Islamorada stopped a commercial fishing vessel in the Upper Keys Tuesday morning that was loaded with dismembered sharks and 11 fins.
Federal law has prohibited the practice of shark finning — where the fin is cut off the shark and the rest of the body discarded — since 2000.
The 40-foot vessel, the Miss Shell, was stopped near South Sound Creek, which is near John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Murray. The initial stop was for improper display of navigational lights, according to a Coast Guard press release.
Crew from a Coast Guard patrol boat, which included an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, boarded the Miss Shell and found the fins and shark carcasses.
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The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has taken over the investigation into the case. There is no immediate information about arrests.
"This is an active investigation in the very early stages," said Allison Garrett, spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries. "We are not able to discuss the case at this time."
According to the Coast Guard press release, charges pending against the operator of the Miss Shell include failure to maintain a shark in its proper form and failure to maintain naturally attached shark fins through offloading. Under the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, removing shark fins, including tails, at sea is illegal. It is also illegal to possess removed fins on board a fishing vessel, and it is illegal to take sharks back to shore "without such fins naturally attached."
The sharks have been sent to a lab to determine their species. Based on those results, more charges could be pending, including possession of prohibited species, according to the Coast Guard press release.
"This case is a great example of inter-agency coordination to stop illegal fishing and allows for efficient enforcement of the commercial fishing fleet in the waters surrounding the Florida Keys," Petty Officer 1st Class Rich Steidell, of Coast Guard Station Islamorada, said in a statement. "Our marine resources are extremely valuable to the public and our nation. Boaters and fishermen are reminded to familiarize themselves with the fishing regulations to make sure they are complying with federal law."
The Miss Shell is registered to Miss Shell Seafood Incorporated in Tavernier, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service website. The owner of the company, according to the Florida Department of State website, is Scott Vaeth, of Tavernier. Vaeth could not be reached for comment.
Shark fins are sought after in Asia for shark fin soup. While it's illegal to cut fins off sharks and throw away the rest of the body in the states, commercial anglers here more and more often are legally selling shark meat on the domestic market while sending the fins abroad, said Liza Merly, a lecturer with the University of Miami's Shark Research and Conservation Program.
"People are still finding a way to get fins there," Merly said. "The sharks are landed and the fins are cut off, putting fins on the market. It's most recently become a problem in Florida and elsewhere" given the state's high shark population.
Follow David Goodhue on Twitter at @DavidGoodhue and Gwen Filosa at @KeyWestGwen.