Hundreds of trap fishermen begin "splashing" their traps today in Monroe County waters in preparation for the opening of the commercial lobster season next week.
Six-hundred-fifty licensed commercial fishermen are placing 485,000 lobster traps around the Florida Keys to get five days' "soak time" to attract spiny lobsters before the first harvest of the season on Monday.
While lobstermen begin their inaugural workout of the season, the head of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association is sending a message to would-be poachers.
Executive Director Bill Kelly estimates that Keys lobster fishermen lose nearly 10 percent of their annual harvest -- about 260 tons -- to trap robbers. That, said Kelly, adds up to about $4 million per year.
Ignorance of the law, he notes, is no excuse, and law enforcement and the courts take a dim view of trap-robbing.
Under Florida law, it is a third-degree felony to lift or move a lobster trap, or even to touch the buoy or line attached to a trap -- it's called trap molestation. And anyone in a boat on which trap molestation occurs is a party to the crime.
"Our goal is to educate people so they are aware of it," Kelly said. "They are stealing other people's livelihoods."
The association has worked closely with the State Attorney's Office, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and other law enforcement agencies to step up enforcement and prosecution.
A new law enacted this year allows judges to sentence trap robbers for up to five years in prison, with fines up to $5,000. That law took effect July 1.
Previously, convicted poachers served no more than 364 days in county jail unless prosecutors could establish that the poachers were a threat to public safety.
"We have made remarkable strides in apprehending those that would steal from the livelihoods of others," Kelly said. "... Molesting a lobster buoy, line or trap is a third-degree felony that could get you up to five years in prison, confiscation of your boat and other gear, revocation of any marine licenses you may possess and banishment from the waters of Monroe County."
Lobster fishermen this year also are dealing with new restrictions on trap placement. Sixty coral reef areas in Keys waters are now off-limits to trapping. The federal rule was established to protect elkhorn and staghorn coral, which are listed on the federal endangered species list. The trap fishermen participated in the rule-making process and supported the closure.
The commercial lobster season ends March 31.