Two Miami men who were caught with the tail of an endangered loggerhead sea turtle in Marathon in January are scheduled to appear before Monroe County Judge Ruth Becker Aug. 27 for a hearing.
Possessing sea turtles or any part of them is against the law. Sea-turtle activists in the Florida Keys are urging Assistant State Attorney Anna Hubicki to push for harsh penalties if the two are convicted.
On Jan. 29, David Hernandez Sordo, 48, and Pedro Suarez, 59, were stopped by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers at mile marker 54 after the two allegedly ran a red light in a Ford pickup. Also, the 24-foot Mako boat they were towing wasn't secured to the trailer with tie-downs.
Officers saw a bloody fillet knife in the truck and two men said they had been fishing. They gave officers consent to search the vessel, where they found the loggerhead turtle tail and two blacknose sharks.
Sordo and Suarez told officers the tail "floated past their vessel" and they took it from the water and put it into the cooler to use as bait.
Loggerheads are federally protected due to their threatened status.
Under state law, Sordo and Suarez could pay a $500 fine and be jailed for up to 60 days. Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, the two could pay a civil penalty up to $25,000 or a criminal penalty up to $100,000 and up to one year in jail.
Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Turtle Hospital, estimated the loggerhead was around 70 years old. She said if the two are convicted, a light sentence won't send a strong enough message.
"If they don't have a harsh punishment, it's not going to keep people from butchering sea turtles," Zirkelbach said. "We're looking for a big turnout in the community to let law enforcement know this is not OK."
Zirkelbach said turtle tails are considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures of the Caribbean and are a main ingredient in a Dominican Republic drink called a mama Juana.
Harry Appel, president of Save-A-Turtle, said some past cases involving sea turtles have been reduced to community service and a $500 fine. Both Save-A-Turtle and the Turtle Hospital have included Hubicki's work email and phone number on their Facebook pages, pushing supporters to contact her.
"It's alarming that there are a lot more cases of this going on in the past few years," Appel said. "We really need the judge to give these guys a stiff fine or some jail time."