FWC makes major fish poaching bust in South Florida

By: Ashley Gustafson

Confiscated illegally poached fish and sea turtles.

It is sad times when poaching crimes and scandals are headlining news channels and outlets around the world. The rash of public displays of blatant disrespect for not only the law but the beautiful, important, and endangered animals protected by that law is not only alarming but heartbreaking. With the uproar of poaching crime around the world it is easy to say that something must be done. From the African savannas to coastal waters, it is critical that endangered and threatened animals around the globe be protected and the laws protecting them be enforced.

At the beginning of the month, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) made a major fish poaching bust in South Florida. The FWC was able to arrest four people for illegal poaching crimes that included both possession of undersized and illegal specimens. “These arrests illustrate how dedicated FWC is to conserving natural resources in Florida,” said FWC Major Alfredo Escanio. “This case is something our officers and investigators put together over time and serves as an example to others; illegal acts like poaching are a serious threat to resource conservation and will not be tolerated.”

As FWC Major Escanio described, this investigation began long before the arrests. As a result, the FWC was able to locate suspects and conduct stops on two of the four suspected vessels. It is during these stops that they were able to locate the evidence needed to convict the suspects of their crimes. The first vessel was located and stopped at the Gordon Pass area of Naples. Aboard the vessel was David Vasquez, a Naples resident, who was operating the vessel at the time of the stop. Once aboard the vessel the FWC officers found two goliath grouper filets and 86 red grouper. Of these 86 grouper 85 of them were undersized. According to rules located on the FWC website, red grouper must be at least 20 inches in length to harvest. This is to ensure that the populations maintain enough healthy, reproducing adults to sustain itself. If they are harvested too early, they never have the chance to reproduce and grow or even sustain the population. Some of the fish found on the first vessel were as small as 12 inches in length. It is also significant to note that the illegal fish were hidden in a secret compartment aboard the vessel out of sight. They were only detected by the help of a FWC K-9 unit on the scene.


FWC officers searching hidden compartment on stopped vessel.

The scene of the stop on the second vessel was even more severe. The second vessel was stopped in the Caxambas Pass near Marco Island. Jorge Escalona was operating the second vessel and had three occupants with him: Jose Escalona Ferral, Adnier Lobaina Lopez, and a minor. As with the first vessel the illegal specimens were located in a hidden compartment within the vessel. This compartment contained parts of a sea turtle, 13 goliath grouper filets, 119 red grouper, five oversized permit, and several other fish. Out of the 119 red grouper 88 were under the legal size limit for harvest.


Both the vessel’s operators and occupants were placed under arrest for poaching and the vessels were seized by the FWC. The occupants on the second vessel, Ferral and Lopez, were also arrested while the third occupant was a minor and was released to their guardian. The suspects arrested will face charges including over-the-bag-limit red grouper, undersized red-grouper, possession of undersized yellowtail snapper and oversized African pompano, possession of goliath grouper and possession of a marine turtle. In addition to the previous charges, neither of the operators possessed a commercial fishing license. The charges range from second-degree misdemeanors to third-degree felonies and could carry penalties of up to five years in prison and fines up to $ 5,000.


Goliath Grouper

One problem with overfishing and fish poaching is that fishermen do not understand why the law exists. Many commercial fishermen believe it is a way the government regulates them or restricts them. Many hobbyists believe that is a restriction of their personal freedom and rights. Neither of the points of view are the truth. Laws against overfishing and poaching exist to protect endangered or threatened animals. One great example of this that pertains to this story is the goliath grouper. The harvest and possession of goliath grouper is prohibited in both state and federal waters. The goliath grouper is the giant of the grouper family. Harvest and possession of the Goliath has been prohibited in state and federal waters in Florida since 1990. If caught they must be immediately returned to the water unharmed. The population of goliath groupers has declined drastically since the 1970s and 1980s due to commercial and recreational fishing and diving. By prohibiting the harvest of goliath groupers they are protected and hopefully preserved. Since 1990, the population has recovered a great deal with increase in certain areas such as Tampa Bay. Not only has the population bounced back but they have extended their former range throughout Florida including areas in the Panhandle and the Big Bend. Right now it is not certain whether the ban on harvesting goliath groupers will be lifted or not in the future. Stock assessments have been completed but the results so far have been inconclusive in nature. A new assessment is planned to be completed within the year and if this assessment shows that the goliath grouper population can with stand some harvest pressure the prohibition will be adjusted.


Green Sea Turtle

Another great example that is relevant to this specific bust is the protection of marine turtle species. All sea turtle species in Florida are considered either endangered or threatened and are all protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act and Florida’s Marine Turtle Protection Act. The decline in sea turtle populations nearly completely accounts to human existence. Between overfishing, habitat loss, reproduction disruption, and boat fatalities, marine turtle’s numbers have declined greatly at the hands of human beings. The hope of the Endangered Species act is to not only protect but reverse some of the damage done in the past. Breaking this act is against the law as well as a crime and the punishment should reflect that and be enforced.

This is an important story to act as a reminder and illustrate that poaching criminals cannot get away with breaking laws that protect wildlife. It is important to show that penalties for wildlife crimes are real and can be severe. These arrests are important as law is law and must be enforced. These laws were made for a reason and that is to protect the sustainability of our oceans. Overfishing and unregulated fishing will result in the possibility of no fishing at all. If we ignore rules outlined by biologists who study the populations of ocean organisms then we will end up sorry in the end. Those that are ignorant enough to break these laws deserve to be caught and charged with the harshest judgement the law permits.