A Florida Keys commercial fishing captain was arrested on felony commercial littering charges this week after investigators say he illegally dumped more than 30 lobster traps along the reef that police considered evidence in an ongoing investigation.
Ricardo Hernandez, 53, was booked on 31 counts of commercial dumping and 31 counts of evidence tampering Thursday following a two-years-long investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
On Sept. 6, 2016, two FWC officers investigating untagged traps checked ones owned by Happy Lobster, a Homestead-based commercial fishing operation. The officers pulled 34 traps that were placed along the reef line in the ocean off Marathon and found 33 of them did not have tags, according to an FWC warrant for Hernandez’s arrest.
On Sept. 14, FWC officers boarded the Happy Lobster vessel captained by Hernandez, registered at the time as the company’s vice president, and found the crew working 19 unlicensed traps.
FWC officers returned to the reef line to find the white-with-green-striped buoys that had been used to mark the placement of Happy Lobster’s traps, gone. No one from the company reported the traps were missing and FWC officers did not see any traps in the storage yard next to the dock where Happy Lobster’s vessel was kept.
The FWC issued a warrant for Hernandez’s arrest on Oct. 26, 2016 for the untagged traps, at which point, he turned himself in. But while the case was pending with the Monroe County State Attorney’s Office, a witness came forward and told investigators Hernandez ordered him to cut the buoys off the traps.
“Cutting the buoys off would render the traps unable to be located from the surface of the water by sight,” FWC Investigator Danielle Munkelt wrote in her report.
The cooperating witness told investigators the traps were in the same area along the reef line they were in when the FWC began its investigation.
FWC divers went to the reef line last July and found the traps during a series of dives. The traps were found in water from 80 to 110 feet deep, according to Munkelt’s report.
“Mr. Hernandez had knowledge he was being investigated during the overt marked stop conducted in uniform on his vessel where he was positively identified through government-issued identification and his GPS displaying waypoints along the reef line off Marathon was photographed,” Merkelt wrote. “As the traps were found to not display tags and have improper markings, they were evidence in a current investigation conducted by FWC.”
“In leaving the traps in the water, Mr. Hernandez violated the Florida Litter Law,” Merkelt wrote.
Hernandez was released from jail Thursday afternoon. He could not be reached for comment. Details of his bond amount were not immediately available at press time.
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204