Florida Keys News
Saturday, November 12, 2016
Wanted fisherman fled to Cuba

A Marathon trap fisherman accused of using dozens of untagged traps apparently fled to Cuba following a two-month investigation into illegal lobster fishing, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the State Attorney’s Office. 

FWC officers served a warrant on Nov. 4 after surveilling the vessel, said FWC officer Bobby Dube. 

In all, 19 untagged traps were fished, according to the FWC. Some traps were also improperly numbered, records state. A mate aboard the vessel — Juan Miguel Exposito-Carralero, 46 — was charged with 71 misdemeanor counts of fishing illegal traps when FWC officers converged on the vessel after it was returning to port, said Assistant State Attorney Christina Cory. 

The captain that the FWC had been targeting, Ricardo Hernandez, 52, was not on the vessel at the time and happened to be in Cuba, Dube said. It does not appear he fled, but he left before the warrant was served, Cory added. 

The case marks a shift in how some poachers are reacting to the FWC as well as the Florida Keys Commercial Fishing Association’s efforts to quelch trap robbing, said the latter association’s executive director Bill Kelly. 

“What’s happening is trap robbing is now a third-degree felony,” Kelly said. “Because of our cooperative time and crime watch efforts, the bad guys are switching from trap robbing to deploying traps with no tags. And the reason is that for a time, tags with no traps was a misdemeanor.”

The FWC has been using vessels with trap haulers on them to check more traps to see if they are tagged or not, Kelly said. 

“There were dock surveys done before the season and if you see individuals stockpiling more traps than they have, then you know something is probably amiss,” Kelly said. 

State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, worked with the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, the State Attorney’s Office and the FWC on a bill that made putting out traps without tag a third-degree felony, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.

The final bill that passed did not make the violation of using non-tagged traps a felony, but it did make other changes to make violations for lobster and stone crab more consistent. It brought harsher penalties for anglers caught taking under-sized lobster. 

The spiny lobster fishery is a $71 million a year industry in the Florida Keys. Fishermen have been paid as much as nearly $20 a pound for lobster in recent years, which gives unscrupulous fishermen plenty of incentive to put out unlicensed traps.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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