Police say Florida Keys fish market sold undersized lobsters

The owner and an employee of a Florida Keys fish market and bait shop were arrested late last week on charges they had egg-bearing female and undersized lobsters for sale.

They deny the charges.

“It’s baloney,” said Angel Borden, wife of Lobster Walk owner Jorge Cabrera. “We’re not going to take this lying down.”

However, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released photos Tuesday the agency says were taken by officers during a Sept. 20 raid on the shop that purportedly show some spiny lobsters with eggs attached. It is illegal to possess or sell egg-bearing lobsters in Florida.

FWC officers arrested Cabrera, 63, and Blanca Sanchez, 51, Cabrera’s employee, Friday at the mile marker 74 shop after receiving a warrant from a judge three days earlier.

Four FWC officers raided Lobster Walk on Sept. 20, when they said the violations were found. FWC spokesman Officer Bobby Dube said the agency received an anonymous complaint that the business was selling short lobsters prior to the raid.

According to the FWC warrant affidavit, officers found three tails in the shop’s cooler that were shorter than the required five-and-a-half inches long. Those three tails, according to Officer Ryan Trueblood’s report, also showed signs that they had come from pregnant females whose eggs had been removed, which is against the law.

For those three allegedly short lobsters, Cabrera and Sanchez face 12 second-degree misdemeanor counts, according to the affidavit: Three counts of possession of three undersized tails; three counts of possession of three egg-bearing tails; three counts of removing eggs from tails; and three counts of failing to return egg-bearing lobsters back to the water alive.

The officers also found four live lobsters in the shop’s tank with carapaces — the part of the lobster that is not the tail — shorter than the required three inches, according to the report. There was also one egg-bearing live lobster in the tank, Trueblood stated in his report.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer measures the carapace of a Florida spiny lobster. The FWC says the photo was taken Sept. 20, 2019, the day it raided Lobster Walk fish market in Islamorada. Officers arrested the owner of the business Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, on charges he was selling undersized and egg-bearing Florida spiny lobsters. FWC

Cabrera and Sanchez face an additional four counts for the undersized live lobsters, one for the egg-bearing lobster and another charge for not returning that lobster back to sea.

They were jailed Friday on a bond of $36,000 each. Cabrera was able to contact a bail bondsman and the two were released from jail later that day.

Sanchez, who lives in Tavernier, could not be reached for comment, but she and Cabrera are being represented by Islamorada attorney John Jabro, who said Tuesday his clients will enter a written plea of not guilty this week.

“This doesn’t smell right,” Jabro said, adding that he questions the motivation of the person or people who reported Cabrera’s business to the FWC.

“I just seems suspicious to me that out of the blue, a group of four or five FWC officers would gather and descend on Jorge Cabrera’s fish market,” he said.

Cabrera is famous in the Keys for being an unrepentant pot smuggler in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, who has recently given public talks on the topic and was even a technical advisor for the Netflix crime drama filmed in the Keys, “Bloodline.” He was convicted in 1996 on trafficking charges and served 15 years in federal prison.

Dube said the complaint came from an “anonymous tipster” who “was sold undersized lobsters at that location.”

One of the FWC officers, Jason Richards, stated in his report that one of the egg-bearing lobster tails “was sliced down the middle with bright-orange eggs attached.”

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer holds a tail from a lobster the agency says was pregnant and bearing eggs. According to the FWC, the lobster was in a cooler at the Lobster Walk fish market in Islamorada, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. FWC owners arrested the business’ owner Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, on charges of selling undersized and egg-bearing lobsters. FWC

“The other two spiny lobster tails had brown and dark orange eggs on its [sic] underside. Some of the eggs were fully attached to the tails, while other eggs were disconnected and falling off when touched,” Richards wrote. “The eggs were not fully attached and did not fully cover the underside of the tails, as I’ve seen, with my past experience.”

Borden said she doesn’t understand why Sanchez, who manages the business’ bait shop and is not in any way an owner, was arrested.

“She’s just an employee,” she said.

Borden said she was the one who bagged the lobster tails in question two days before the FWC officers inspected Lobster Walk. She maintains they were not undersized nor egg-bearing at the time, and no one from Lobster Walk removed the eggs.

“We know how careful we are,” Borden said. “We’re innocent of scraping lobster eggs, I know that.”

Cabrera mug.jpg
Jorge Cabrera MCSO

According to the affidavit, officers arrested Sanchez because she holds a state commercial saltwater fishing license, a wholesale seafood dealer license and a retail seafood license, and was caught working at a business involved in fisheries violations.

“As a commercially licensed fisherman, wholesale dealer, and retail dealer, Ms. Sanchez is required to meet and abide by the laws pertaining to the harvest and sale of lobsters,” Trueblood wrote in his report.

Borden was not at the business the day it was raided. She left on a trip to the Cayman Islands the day before, Sept. 19.

She said the day before she left, she checked the open-air saltwater tank and did not see any egg-bearing lobsters. Borden said if there were any in the tank, which is located on the seawall on the property and viewable to customers, they “would stick out like a sore thumb.”

Borden added that it is possible the lobster began spawning and showing her egg sack in the day between when she checked the tank, which she said she does “every morning and every night,” and the FWC officers inspected the business.