Florida Keys

Florida Keys police charge two Broward brothers and others in lobster miniseason arrests

People caught the tail end of lobster mini-season on Thursday

Check out the catch of the day in Matheson Hammock park from the tail end of spiny tail lobster mini-season in on July 25, 2019.
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Check out the catch of the day in Matheson Hammock park from the tail end of spiny tail lobster mini-season in on July 25, 2019.

Florida marine patrol police arrested two Broward County brothers in the Keys Wednesday on conservation charges of being well over the legal bag limit for spiny lobster and possessing a dozen that were undersized during the first day of the two-day “miniseason” for the popular crustaceans.

Michael Aaron Wetcher, 28, of Plantation, and Matthew Ryan Wetcher, 20, of Weston, were booked into Monroe County jail around 4 p.m. on 12 counts each of possessing undersized lobsters and one count each of being over the bag limit.

In the Florida Keys and within Biscayne National Park, people can keep six lobsters per day during the July 24 and 25 miniseason and during the eight-month regular commercial and recreational season that starts Aug. 6.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Bobby Dube said the Wetchers were arrested underneath the Channel 5 Bridge on Lower Matecumbe Key after FWC plainclothes police noticed a bag full of 24 lobsters hidden beneath some rocks.

Not knowing Investigator Chris Mattson and Officer Brittany Mobley were with the FWC, the men walked down an embankment and asked them why they were “messing with their stuff,” Dube said.

Mattson then showed his badge. The Wetchers were read their rights and then told the officers they caught the lobsters and did not measure them, Dube said. Twelve were undersized, he added.

Jay Wetcher, the men’s father, said his sons never intended on keeping all the lobsters, but they lost count as they were bagging them while snorkeling. Wetcher said they left the bag in the water by the shore while they went to the car to eat a snack and drink some water. They were on their way back to measure the lobsters — not realizing by law they must be measured before they’re bagged — when they encountered the FWC officers, their father said.

He also said the bag was not hidden in the rocks.

“They were honest about what they did,” Wetcher said. “They didn’t deny anything.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the FWC had arrested six people, including the Wetchers, in the Keys during this year’s miniseason, an annual event in which thousands of people come to South Florida and the Keys to catch Florida spiny lobster, a clawless crustacean that is sought after worldwide, especially in Asia.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officers David Robison and Garrett Jacobs patrol the Upper Florida Keys on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, day one of the two-day lobster miniseason.

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office made one fisheries violation arrest and issued 49 citations for either possessing undersized lobsters or being over the bag limit, said Adam Linhardt, agency spokesman.

“Deputies on the water reported most anglers were harvesting legally, but there are always violations every year despite our educational efforts,” Linhardt said.

Deputies made two other arrests on the water, but they were not related to miniseason. One man had an outstanding arrest warrant, and the other was a drug arrest, Linhardt said.

Arrest numbers and citations for mainland counties like Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach were not immediately available.

Miniseason and regular season are highly regulated, but the main rules are:

The lobster’s carapace, the part that’s not the tail, must be 3 inches long;

The bag limit is six per person, per day in the Keys and Biscayne National Park, and 12 per person everywhere else in the state;

No spearfishing for lobsters;

Anglers must either dive or snorkel for the lobsters or catch them from boats using bullynets, which are long poles connected to a down-facing net. Bullynetting is usually done at night.

As of noon Thursday, there was one major injury in the Keys, when a man was cut by a boat propeller on the leg while swimming off Conch Key around 11 a.m. Thursday, Linhardt said. He was airlifted to Jackson South Medical Center in Kendall with non life-threatening injuries.

In Broward County, a 60-year-old man was found dead Wednesday in the water off Hillsboro Inlet. According to the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the man fell off his boat about a half a mile from the inlet. Authorities said the man, Peter Mendez, 70, of Davie, was believed to have been lobster-diving.

Anglers in the Keys had mixed reaction to this year’s action, with most saying the lobsters seem to have been more abundant last season.

Ray Ruiz, Nick Avila, Anthony Goodhue, Sebastina and Corey Weech, all from Fort Lauderdale, stand on a boat in Snake Creek holding spiny lobsters they caught Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in Islamorda. David Goodhue/dgoodhue@flkeysnews.com

“Last year, we capped out in 30 minutes,” said Jupiter resident Scott Witkowski, who was with some friends on a boat in the bay off Islamorada Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve been out here about five hours today.”

Islamorada local Wyatt Cadwell had a similar report.

“It’s not quite like last year,” said Cadwell, who was bullynetting with his friends Wednesday night. “Last night took a while” to reach the bag limit.

For others who got an earlier start, the day was slow-going at first, but picked up by late afternoon.

“It was slow on the inside, until we got to your guys’ area,” Nick Avila, of Fort Lauderdale, said laughing, noting that he and his friends caught their limit near the Whale Harbor Bridge, right in front of FWC’s Upper Keys base.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.