A Big Pine Key diver accused of taking more than 13 gallons of snails Wednesday was arrested in what wildlife officers described as the biggest Florida Keys snail case in more than 23 years.
Vernon Eugene Siegel, 29, of Bailey Road, was charged with being over the commercial bag limit and failing to use a live well when harvesting marine life. Both are misdemeanors.
Siegel is accused of taking turbo snails, a popular snail with saltwater and reef aquarium hobbyists due to its ability to clean algae and other nuisance plants, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) spokesman Bobby Dube. It is unlikely Siegel was harvesting them to eat, Dube added.
An FWC officer spotted a anchored boat with a dive flag about 200 yards off the Spanish Harbor Channel Bridge at about 1 p.m. and ran the boat number, which came back to Siegel, a commercial marine life collector, according to an FWC incident summary report.
The boat began making its way to a canal on Avenue E at 5:15 p.m., where an unmarked FWC vehicle and another officer were waiting nearby, reports say. When Siegel arrived at the dock, the officers searched the boat and reportedly found about 14 gallons of snails. When officers asked where the rest of the snails were, Siegel reportedly said, "You got me," and showed officers a large dive bag full of the snails.
Officers gathered the snails and took them to Mote Marine Laboratory in Summerland Key to be used in research and booked Siegel into the Monroe County Detention Center. A diver who was with Siegel was not charged.
Siegel has no other conservation violations in Monroe County, according to Sheriff's Office records.
"Turbo snails clean the tanks and serve other purposes," Dube said. "Very few people actually collect them. It's a very hard business to break into with the required licenses and all that." It is legal for those with a saltwater products license who also have a marine life endorsement to collect the snails, Dube said. The snails range from about three-quarters of an inch to about 2 inches in length.
There is a 1 gallon limit for the "filter feeders that serve their purpose in the ecosystem by cleaning just about everything," which also makes them desirable for tank hobbyists, Dube said.
"This is the biggest turbo snail case in the 23 years I've been working here," Dube said. "We're talking about 13 pounds. That's way over the limit." Officers are hoping to gather more information in the case.
"We're hoping more comes of this case," Dube said.