Ever wonder what happens when you call in a probable fisheries violation?
Well, here’s a closeup look at a real case that may result in real consequences.
At approximately 10:30 a.m., on Thursday, June 16, anglers in a small boat south of St. Lucie Inlet called the Florida Sportsman Magazine office to report a possible case of snook spearfishing. They’d seen a diver emerge from the water with a big snook. . . on the end of a spear. . . during the closed season. . . within St. Lucie Inlet State Park, where spearfishing is prohibited.
It was a veritable grand slam of snook fishing violations.
We relayed the report, and the reporter’s cell phone number, to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) South Region Jupiter office (we found the number at myfwc.com, but *FWC on a cellular phone also works).
I also called the Martin County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit… but it turned out the FWC called them, too. The state’s main fish and wildlife enforcement division is geared up to work with different agencies in times of need, and this happened to be one of them.
Martin County Sheriff Sgt. Donald Plant was sitting inside Manatee Pocket, literally seconds from St. Lucie Inlet. He was aboard his agency’s brand-new 28-foot rigid hull inflatable when he got two phone calls, the first from FS, and moments later, the FWC.
“They transferred the call from Fish and Wildlife, about a vessel off Peck Lake observed spearfishing. I told them I already knew about it; I was ready to put down the throttles.”
At the same time, FWC Lt. Van Streety was just leaving his home in Palm Beach Gardens, some 20 miles south of St. Lucie Inlet.
“I got the call from our dispatch center,” said Streety, who is the supervising lieutenant for the five FWC Martin County officers. “Our FWC officer was off-shift for a dental appointment. I said I would find a Palm Beach officer who could head north from Jupiter Inlet, and that I would go to Sandsprit Park, and try to run a tag with the FL numbers the original caller had provided.”
“Then Sheriff Sgt. Donald Plant called me to say, ‘We have definite violations,’ and I said to escort the vessel to the boat ramp.”
Based on the original caller’s description of a blue cabin cruiser with three divers on board, Sgt. Plant had intercepted the 25-foot vessel south of St. Lucie Inlet.
“I tried to approach the boat from the bow, taking it easy,” he said. “I didn’t want to spook them. Then I hit the blue lights right at the end.”
Plant said the vessel occupants “were cooperative.” He took from them two dead snook and two spearguns, and instructed them to proceed to Sandsprit Park.
At 12:30 p.m. at the Sandsprit boat ramp, an FS photographer (that would be me…) showed up on scene, followed by FWC Lt. Streety, and within about 15 minutes, the FWC patrol boat from Jupiter.
Not a good day to be on the wrong side of the law.
Streety boarded the Martin Sheriff vessel, which Plant had moored alongside the 25-foot cabin cruiser. He inspected the two fish (one clearly oversize) and the spearfishing gear. Then he addressed the three men, who were still aboard their vessel, tied up the dock. One of them had already identified himself as the trigger-man.
“What’s your understanding of the situation here?” Streety asked, hands clasped in front of him.
The men responded—and I paraphrase–that they had failed to fully read the fisheries laws.
Streety went on to remind the men, sternly but politely, of the laws and the charges one of them would now face. He even suggested the appropriate way to fillet snook, taking off the soapy-flavored skin, when the season is open. And of course, no spearing snook—not in the park, not anywhere in Florida.
I was standing right there, and the guys Streety was addressing struck me as more oblivious than malicious; not organized midnight poachers. Still, Streety and Plant, both armed, stuck together.
Unfortunately for the hapless divers, they wouldn’t be keeping their catch; Streety would have it destroyed.
“What’s this going to cost me?” the man charged asked.
“That’ll be up to a judge,” Streety said. “Sometimes education is expensive.”
Not one to pass up a chance, I walked over and talked to the three divers. I asked the man charged how he felt about his actions.
“I did a stupid mistake,” he said.
“You out here a lot?” I asked.
This was his first day out, diving with family members, he said. He’d moved here from New York, one year ago.
“How did you feel about how the officers handled the situation?”
“They treated me great, treated me with respect,” he said.
I spoke with Streety again, after he’d finished the investigation. He’d given the man I spoke with–a resident of Pt. St. Lucie–a notice to appear in court, with a copy of the citation: Two charges, possession of snook out of season, and illegal method of harvest, spearfishing.
“Martin County Sheriff’s marine squad isn’t the same agency, but we do work together quite often, to ensure the boating public is safe, and the resources of the state are looked after,” said Streety.
“When members of the public call, if a possible violation is still in progress, the dispatch is immediate. But it’s paramount that we’ve established good working relationship with other jurisdictions. They call us quite often, too.”
“If everybody out there is ignorant but apologetic, we’d still have a big resource problem.”