Lobster mobsters beware.
The war on lobster-trap robbers is heating up as winter nears and a small army of additional wildlife officers make their way into the Florida Keys. Recent arrests of three Lower Keys commercial fishermen signaled a widening approach as officers are beginning to make more arrests, officials said Thursday.
Just how many more Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officers have been requested for and sent to Monroe County was not released, but it is a "large number" and they will be helping patrol from Key West to Key Largo as more seasoned officers focus on lobster violation investigations, said Lt. David Dipre, who spearheads much of the Lower and Middle Keys enforcement.
"They'll be doing more trap-robbing patrols, while our local officers will be doing more of the investigative work," Dipre said, adding that the officers will be working full-time, 40-hour weeks.
FWC routinely moves officers around wherever they are needed most, for events such as Hospitality Expo, aka bartenders week, on a sandbar in Islamorada, or to Miami for similar large happenings, but these officers are not being sent down for any singular event.
"We're getting BOLOs (be-on-the-lookout reports) for trap-robbers on a weekly basis," said FWC spokesman Bobby Dube, who works mainly in the Upper Keys. "We're trying to work with the commercial fishermen in establishing patterns out there, but it's tough. We're talking about a huge area from Miami to the Dry Tortugas."
As the FWC continues to make cases, it's noticed a trend in the past two years: organized efforts by Miami-Dade County residents coming down to the Keys specifically to rob traps or commit other fishery violations, Dipre said.
"It's getting to be a popular sport and income producer for these organized groups to come down here to rob traps," Dipre said. "They're coming down with the strict intention to rob traps. It's happening more and more and they're taking millions and millions of dollars from the legitimate industry."
Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association (FKCFA) Executive Director Bill Kelly was quick to say that Keys fishermen lose about 10 percent of their landings to trap robbers, which translates to 260 tons of lobsters worth about $4 million a year.
Commercial fishermen with FKCFA have lauded Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward and Assistant State Attorney Colleen Dunne for their tough approach to trap robbers and poachers. Dunne has been honored as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Prosecutor of the Year.
Ward said Thursday he was notified that FWC was sending additional officers to the area.
"We take this very seriously, because lobsters are such a valuable commodity not only for fishermen, but for restaurants and everyone else," Ward said.
Just as more officers are coming down from the mainland, so is the criminal element, Dipre said.
"This has exploded over the last two years," Dipre said. "The trend is really falling into place now. All you have to do is look at the arrests and see where they are from. A large portion are from Miami. That isn't to say local people are not doing it, too, but we're seeing more and more groups from Miami."
There are more than 300 miles of coastline in the Keys and the FWC has historically been undermanned, at least since Dube has been patrolling.
"It's wide open out there and we can always use more manpower," Dube said. "We're also usually training new people, and that takes time and effort as well, and it's been that way for all my 23 years."
Officers are also gearing up for stone crab season, which starts Oct. 15, though the lobster season typically lures more trap robbers, Kelly said.
"We couldn't be doing these investigations without the extra officers," Dipre said. "We're just spread too thin down here, but we have to do it. We have to make these cases."