On Nov. 14, 2011, Officer Justin Allen announced that he was resigning from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to work in the private sector. What his fellow employees and peers didn’t know was that Allen had assumed a new role as an undercover officer investigating the illegal fish and wildlife black market in Northeast Florida. The undercover investigation was named “Operation Smorgasbord,” and within 24 hours of Allen’s new assignment, he made contact with a Putnam County resident who wanted to purchase illegal deer, fish and a gopher tortoise, a threatened species.
Allen had been reassigned to the FWC’s Covert Investigations Section, which is operated out of headquarters in Tallahassee. One of the unit’s missions is to protect Florida’s natural resources from illegal commercialization. Illegal products, including fish, wildlife and other natural resources filtering into the private sector, undercut law-abiding, legitimate businesses.
Businesses are required to work under strict health code regulations, quality control standards, handling requirements and also must report harvest information. Commercial fishermen and private game farms are adversely affected when illegal businesses continue to operate.
Legal commercial businesses invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, traps, fencing, supplies, insurance, land, boats, taxes, employee salaries and commercial licenses, and they work long and hard hours to make a living. However, black market prices truly undercut legal business efforts and profits. For example, legal venison (deer meat) sells for $10-$15 per pound. On the black market, venison can be sold for $2 a pound. Legal red snapper sells for $10 a pound, while the black market price is $3 a pound.
The FWC attempts to eliminate illegal markets and ensure that when you sit down for dinner at your favorite restaurant, you are eating fish or wildlife that came from a clean, healthy and legal source. The public safety and health concerns for seafood are no joking matter. Products like oysters, fish and shrimp are commonly eaten raw, so commercial dealers must adhere to strict handling requirements.
Another bad aspect of poaching is that it robs the average citizen by stealing fish, wildlife and natural resources from legal sportsmen and the outdoor enthusiasts who follow harvest limits and seasons.
Five years ago, the FWC held its first undercover school designed to train officers to infiltrate the illegal markets that undermine conservation efforts and legal business. State-certified FWC law enforcement officers go through a rigorous training process that helps build confidence and needed skills to become a covert operative. When Allen attended the FWC covert school in 2009, he stood out among his peers. He was clearly the right choice for Operation Smorgasbord.
Florida’s black market for natural resources is statewide and enters many arenas. For example, grouper and red snapper are illegally caught and shipped to markets out of state; prohibited species like piranha and turtles are sold on the Internet; protected elk horn corals are illegally harvested and sold for tropical fish tanks; deer are illegally killed and sold in specialty markets; oysters are harvested from closed waters and shipped to unsuspecting buyers; Native American mounds are looted and the artifacts sold internationally; and freshwater turtles are illegally harvested and shipped to Asian markets. The list goes on.
To efficiently allocate funding and personnel to address these issues, the FWC Investigations Section prioritizes initiatives through a process called the “Test of Five.” This is a basic system to establish priority investigations through their:
1) Impact on public health and safety and other disease concerns;
2) Public perception and the public’s expectation of the FWC;
3) Effects on other species and the environment;
4) The status of the natural resource involved; and
5) Commercial impact on legal business.
When Operation Smorgasbord was assessed using the Test of Five, it was an easy decision to undertake the operation.
Allen assumed a false identity and quickly established himself within the local communities of Putnam, St. Johns, Alachua, Flagler and Marion counties. Within several months, the FWC decided to merge a parallel investigation from Volusia County that had a covert operative by the name of Investigator James “Van” Barrow. Both Barrow and Allen quickly became the dynamic-duo as they infiltrated the black markets of Northeast Florida. Lt. Don McMillen, their case agent and a 30-plus-year veteran of the FWC, provided direct support and local supervision of the operation, while Capt. Rett Boyd and Capt. Gregg Eason provided directional oversight.
Several months after the investigations merged, criminal charges started to mount. The level of exploitation of illegal product would amaze the average citizen, and would even amaze most experienced conservation officers. The suspect list continued to grow, and violations varied. They included illegal selling and purchasing redfish, red snapper, trout, sheepshead, grouper, bass, crappie, bream, catfish, soft shell turtles, gopher tortoise, black bear, flounder, mullet, alligators, vermilion snapper, striped bass, blue crab, shrimp and tuna; possession of a firearm by a convicted felon; and possession/solicitation of cannabis.
The investigation determined that multiple loosely connected poaching rings were operating in five different counties. Even though these rings were not directly connected with an organized structure, they all displayed the same disrespect for conservation laws and for their fellow citizens’ rights to the natural resources they were poaching.
After 15 months of investigation, the FWC had 34 felonies and 280 misdemeanor violations on 56 suspects. The decision was made to bring the operation to an end and move into the takedown phase. On Feb. 28 of this year, 58 FWC officers met at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office for a takedown briefing. Capt. Eason led the takedown operation, designating teams to apprehend the violators.
On the following day, during the early morning hours, 18 separate teams descended upon six counties to arrest felony suspects. Those who were charged with misdemeanor violations received mandatory notices to appear in court.
The operation was an overwhelming success and will certainly help to deter future violations. Covert investigations such as Operation Smorgasbord are exceptionally rare, and the risk assumed by the covert operative can be great. Despite common misconceptions portrayed by Hollywood spy movies and TV shows, there is no glory or glamour in the undercover world. These operatives are required to work long hours, day and night, behind the scenes, associate with poachers and earn low wages. Barrow and Allen volunteered for the assignment for the right reasons; they did it for a higher calling. With that being said, we are extremely proud and grateful for the fine work they have done to protect Florida’s natural resources.
Poachers are stealing from you, the business owner, the legal hunter and fisherman, the wildlife viewer, the landowner and the average Florida resident and visitor. Please join us in protecting Florida’s resources by reporting violations to Wildlife Alert at 888-404-3922, online at MyFWC.com/WildlifeAlert, or text firstname.lastname@example.org. You can remain anonymous and receive a reward of up to $1,000.
–Maj. Curtis Brown, Investigations and Captive Wildlife, Section Leader, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission