Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Investigator Christina Martin was alone on patrol near Card Sound Bridge around 9 p.m. Sept. 14 checking out the area after commercial lobster anglers complained they’ve been the target of trap poachers.
She drove her marked patrol boat from Card Sound, separating North Key Largo and mainland Miami-Dade County, to the bridge. Not seeing any boats, she headed north to Card Bank. The water was flat calm, but in the moonlight, she noticed a boat’s wake cutting perpendicular to her vessel.
Looking to her west, Martin saw a jon boat — a flat-bottomed boat with bench seats used for fishing — about 100 feet away from her boat, operating with no navigational lights. She turned on her spotlight and lit up the small craft, seeing one man operating the vessel from the stern, a man sitting in the middle and another man on the boat’s bow, according to Martin’s report.
As she moved her boat closer to the boat, Martin could see one of the men stand up and drop a large object into the water.
Pulling up to the boat, Martin said she immediately recognized the men on board as Tomas Silva, Carlos Perez Sanchez and Manuel Vazquez Garcia from previous vessel and fisheries inspections.
Martin stated in her report that the men’s clothes were covered in gray mud “consistent with working or pulling traps, as they are frequently covered with sediment from the ocean floor.”
A 5-gallon bucket that was half full with grunts was on the jon boat, but no other types of fish or lobsters or crabs. Martin wrote them a citation for not displaying running lights and sent them on their way.
But she didn’t forget what they dropped overboard and wrote down the map coordinates of the vessel stop. The next day, she returned around noon.
In the daylight, she could see a large white, mesh bag on the floor of Card Sound in about 10 feet of water. She called two Biscayne National Park Service officers she knows to help her dive down to check it out.
One officer donned a snorkel and mask, hopped in the water, and emerged with the bag, which was stuffed with wrung lobster tails. He told Martin there were many more tails all over the bottom.
Martin then went in the water and noticed “a couple hundred” lobster tails strewn about, as well as a second white, mesh bag, that was not cinched shut.
“We spent the next 30 minutes retrieving wrung lobster tails and four stone crab claws,” Martin wrote in her report.
When they got back to land, the officers counted the tails. In the first mesh bag, there were 232 tails, 120 of which were under the legal size limit. There were also three stone crab claws, which are not in season until Oct. 15.
The second bag had 185 wrung tails, or tails pulled from the lobster. (Lobsters have to come to shore whole.) Of the wrung tails, 72 were undersized. The officers also found three stone crab claws.
Martin obtained an arrest warrant for the men. Sanchez, 31, and Vazquez Garcia, 61, were taken into custody in Homestead early Tuesday morning. They are in county jail in Plantation Key on a bond of $40,000 each. Silva, who was operating the vessel, has not been arrested.
The location of the arrest put the men close to the border of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, but within Monroe. That’s bad news for them if they’re charged. Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward has made enforcing lobster poaching and other fisheries violations a priority of his administration.
Fisheries violations for the most part are second-degree misdemeanors. However, being caught with more than 100 undersized tails makes the violation a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in state prison and a $5,000 fine. Ward, who declined to comment on this case, has said he would seek the maximum penalty in similar cases.