Justice system -- and you -- must help stop trap robbing

Trap molestation and theft of spiny lobster is an ongoing problem and serious financial burden to the livelihoods of law-abiding citizens gainfully employed in the commercial fishing industry. The estimated loss to commercial fishermen due to theft is 8 percent to 10 percent of the total annual harvest. That translates into huge numbers -- 450,000 pounds of lobster -- with a wholesale value of $2.7 million for the 2009-10 season alone.

Why some people feel it is their right to steal from licensed lobster-harvesting gear, whether for a lobster dinner or for profit, is bewildering. It is also a felony under Florida statutes. If convicted, you could get five years in state prison, a $5,000 fine and other punishment.

On June 28 in Key West, Circuit Court Judge David J. Audlin Jr. passed sentence on a trio of convicted lobster thieves. Judge Audlin began his sentencing hearing with these words, "These are serious crimes and warrant more than minimum sentences."

He then administered harsh penalties, including a three-year prison sentence for the vessel captain, an additional two years probation and lifetime forfeiture of his lobster harvesting gear and licenses, effectively preventing him from ever returning to the water to make a living or stealing the livelihood of others.

On Plantation Key, a trial under the jurisdiction of Judge Luis Garcia recently concluded in his courtroom with felony convictions of a father and son team also charged with molestation of licensed lobster harvesting gear. These two men will face sentencing sometime in August and hopefully the penalties will be at least as severe as those administered in Key West.

We wish to express our heartfelt thanks to the Monroe County State Attorney's Office for dedicating the time and resources to tackle this enormous and egregious ongoing criminal issue that deprives hundreds of licensed lobster harvesters of significant annual income.

Assistant state attorneys Val Winter (Key West) and Colleen Dunne (Plantation Key) were simply outstanding in their preparation, dedication and methodology in prosecuting these cases. Naturally, we extend our sincere appreciation to include State Attorney Dennis Ward and his hard-working staff and support team.

Especially noteworthy is the diligent investigative work of the men and women with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and their expert courtroom testimony.

We are only weeks away from the startup of the 2010-11 lobster season and the annual two-day mini-season for recreational harvesters. Please help us educate visitors to our island chain that lobster traps are real property. Stealing from them is a felony and will most likely result in severe penalties for those convicted, including jail time. We ask the state Department of Transportation to restore highway signs that warn visitors and residents alike of the consequences of molesting buoys, trap lines or traps.

We also hope these recent court cases will serve as a potent reminder to anyone in the industry considering poaching from other fishermen that ultimately, you will go to jail and risk the forfeiture of your vessel, fishing gear and licenses for your lifetime.