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Illegal Fish-Selling Investigation

Illegal Fish-Selling Investigation
Illegal Fish-Selling Investigation

Illegal Fish-Selling Investigation Rocks Seafood Community

In the largest-ever crackdown against illegal fish and lobster sales, a seafood house has been hit with a half-million-dollar fine. Ramifications are echoing throughout the Florida Keys and the rest of the state fishing community.

“And this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said one lawman, not that we see that many icebergs in Florida.

The main defendant in the recent case was Rusty Anchor Seafood of Key West, which pleaded guilty in April to a boxful of federal conspiracy charges involving illegal purchase, sale and transport of fish and lobster.

Prosecutors said Rusty Anchor made dozens of purchases based on illegalities ranging from non-existent licenses to mislabeling. For instance, black grouper suffered the indignity of being reported as mahoua, a baitfish.

The driving force behind the Rusty Anchor bust and other cases is Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald. Indeed, it appears that some of his successful convictions over the past six years (deemed Operation Freezer Burn and Operation Frost Bite) broke open the Rusty Anchor case. And knowledgeable insiders whisper that the trail will lead to cases well beyond South Florida.

Which begs some important questions: Considering all the fishery closures these days and heightened interest in the accountability of catches, what's the real value of trip tickets when they can be so easily falsified? And just how many other state trip tickets have been falsified that never surface?

Let's Close the Conduit for Recreational Catches

The landmark Rusty Anchor case shed important light on shenanigans between wholesalers and commercial fishermen, and illuminated another shady corner: At least two of the transactions involved sellers who obtained saltwater products while on private fishing trips, without commercial licenses.

It wouldn't be a stretch of logic that other private anglers/divers and charter skippers in the Lower Keys were likely aware of the R/A's distortion of controls. There's also the sticky issue of the sale of fish caught by recreational anglers when aboard a charterboat. One must possess a saltwater products license (SPL) in Florida to sell fish, though it's fuzzy at best whether he may or should sell recreationally caught fish.

Ironically, an angler's super day on the water can result in serious misunderstandings back at the dock. Stories abound of charter customers being told that their catch must be “shared” with the crew. Indeed, the value of a big cooler of fillets will normally be significant.

Assuming that most charter captains and guides are honest, selling their customers' fish nonetheless is a tempting proposition when faced with fuel costs, competition and ever-increasing fishery closures. It's a potentially lucrative activity.

Confusing matters are the regulatory differences between state and federal waters. Besides the FWC laws, in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico (beyond nine nautical miles from shore), recreationally caught reef fish may not be sold, but species such as mackerel may. A captain does not need a federal permit to sell bag-limit caught fish, but over and above that a commercial permit and SPL is needed.

In federal Atlantic waters (beyond three nm off Florida), the sale of snapper or grouper is prohibited without a commercial snapper-grouper permit. Even if the skipper holds a commercial snapper-grouper permit, he may not sell any fish caught by recreational anglers.

Private anglers shouldn't mix recreational angling and commercial selling either. Everyone should step aside this deep rabbit hole.

Confusing? Darn right. Does the lack of trip ticket scrutiny and enforcement challenges lead to malpractices? Darn right. Does money corrupt the system? The Rusty Anchor case is proof enough.

A remedy lies in making it simple so the gray areas don't further darken the sport we love. Therefore, as Karl Wickstrom stipulates in this issue's Openers column, let's see an unequivocal law passed that plainly states: No wildlife taken under recreational terms or management may be bought or sold.

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