Florida fisheries investigators have arrested three people following a nearly three-year inquiry into alleged counterfeiting of lobster trap tags, required by law for commercial anglers to do business in the state.
Authorities say the suspected ringleader is a Palmetto Bay woman who is the registered agent of more than 50 active and inactive commercial fishing operations in Florida. She was arrested Monday in the Florida Keys on racketeering and fraud charges.
Elena P. Reyes, 67, is being held in Monroe County jail on a total bond of $892,500. Monroe County Judge Mark Wilson signed a warrant for her arrest Monday on two counts of racketeering, one count of fraud to swindle $20,000 or more and more than 30 fraud counts.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators also arrested two men.
Michael Enrique Sanchez, 22, of Miami, is being held on a $100,000 bond on a fraud to swindle $20,000 or more.
Oscar Martin Mazorra, 54, was booked into jail on a racketeering charge and held on a $100,000 bond. Mazorra is president of MF Fishing Inc., a Weston company in which Reyes is a registered agent, according to the Florida Division of Corporations.
Lobster trap tags are required by the state to be affixed to commercial anglers’ traps. The tags themselves cost a dollar, but they are worth far more than that to fishermen.
The FWC limits tag allocations based on how many commercial lobster certificates a boat owner has. The agency allocates these certificates annually based on an angler’s reported trap usage in the preceding three-year period.
Certificates are transferable and anglers can sell them, but the market is closely watched by the FWC. The goal of the trap tag program when it was implemented in 1992 was to limit the impact of harvesting spiny lobsters in a given area. The tight regulation means there is also a black market on tags, certificates and commercial lobster licenses.
Fish and Wildlife investigators say Reyes, through her company Florida Marine Fisheries Consultant, Inc., conspired with some of her clients to reduce the surcharges owed to the state by transferring tag certificates and under-reporting the cost of the transaction, usually by $100 to $200, the FWC stated in a press release.
“By grossly reducing the price of the certificates, Elena Reyes saved her clients money by defrauding the state of Florida roughly $200,000,” the press release states.
The FWC began investigating Reyes in August 2016 at the conclusion of a separate case that resulted in 64 felony charges and 347 misdemeanors. A closer look at those cases led investigators to Reyes.
Investigators say she also used the personal information of at least 60 commercial anglers to help her clients who ordinarily would not qualify for a license and trap tags to illegally obtain them, according to the FWC release.
Information that Reyes, a notary public, stole from commercial anglers included the last five digits of their Social Security numbers and their saltwater commercial fishing license numbers, investigators say. The paperwork required to obtain the lobster licenses is called Crew Share Statements.
“Throughout the years, Reyes has created more than 200 falsified Crew Share Statements,” the press release reads.
The press release did not detail what role investigators say Sanchez and Mazorra played in the alleged schemes.
The Florida spiny lobster is the “No. 1 species in dockside value harvested each year” in the state’s $18 billion commercial fishing industry. There are more than 10,000 commercial lobster fishing licenses active in the state now, according to the FWC, with more looking to get into the trade legally or illegally.
“Demand from overseas markets like China have only heightened the lengths that unscrupulous individuals will go in order to take advantage of the skyrocketing demand for this product,” the FWC stated.