When lobster-resource violations reach the egregious point, Florida Keys prosecutors "will take it very, very seriously," State Attorney Catherine Vogel cautions.
"All those people out there for lobster mini-season next week need to be aware they cannot take undersized lobster, wring tails on the water or spear lobster," Vogel said Tuesday.
"A lobster can be victimized in many different ways," she said.
The lobster sport-diving days fall on July 29 and 30 this year, with estimates of about 30,000 people expected on Keys waters in quest of crustaceans.
A 38-year-old Tennessee man vacationing in Key West was arrested Thursday by a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigator on 156 misdemeanor counts connected to 63 wrung lobster tails reportedly found in his catch bags.
Charles J. Emanuel may not wind up facing all 156 counts but the total number of lobster will be classified as a major violation of conservation law with numerous charges.
"FWC officers have administered charges like this in the past as part of FWC efforts to do its best to promote conservation of resources," agency spokeswoman Katie Purcell said Monday. "As the cases move through the judicial process, they may be handled differently depending upon a variety of factors."
"We look forward to the prosecution," Vogel said. "If this type of conservation violation continues, lobster could become extinct."
"It's similar to the problem we had with conchs. They were almost fished to extinction," said Vogel, specifying that she meant the mollusk, not native-born islanders.
State Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) in 2014 sponsored a bill passed by the Legislature to increase penalties for taking lobster out of season and wringing tails on the water.
"Those are two types of violations commonly associated with poaching," said Kate DeLoach, Raschein's district secretary.
"Rep. Raschein worked closely with our state attorney, the FWC and our local commercial fishermen on this bill to make sure the language was targeted specifically to address the lobster mobsters we see in the headlines," she said.
Assistant State Attorney Colleen Dunne said state lobster law generally considers having out-of-season or undersized lobster as one violation, whether it's one or six animals. Penalties increase for more than 25 lobster.
Other violations, like having a wrung tail or speared lobster, can be filed as individual counts for every lobster, she said.
"Everybody agrees that it's bad to have one speared lobster," Vogel said. "Having 10 is worse."
"It's important that people going out to lobster know the laws," the state attorney said. "We're doing this to protect our commercial fishing industry, and to protect the lobster fishery."
The eight-month regular lobster season opens Aug. 6.