One of the first arrests of the 2018 lobster miniseason happened about an hour before the season actually began.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers stopped a small boat propelled by a 3-horse power engine around 11 p.m. Tuesday on the bay side of Whale Harbor in Islamorada. The three men on board had roughly 20 spiny lobsters in a netted bag.
While it’s not immediately clear if the lobsters were of legal size, what is clear is the men caught them before it was legal to do so..
For each lobster caught, the men face a separate misdemeanor charge, said FWC Officer Billy Thompson.
“They’ll spend a lot of days in jail for this one,” said Thompson, who provided backup for his colleagues who made the bust, and who towed the men’s vessel back to the FWC’s base on the bay side of mile marker 84 in Windley Key.
Rafael Andino, 47, from Homestead, was booked on 17 fisheries violations. Abnel Flores Betancourt, 47, from Homestead, faces 18 violations. And, Luis Rodriguez Vergel, 71, also from Homestead, was arrested on 18 conservation counts. They were still in Plantation Key jail late Wednesday morning.
While the arrests at Whale Harbor may have been the first of the two-day miniseason, which began at midnight, they won’t be the last. Thousands of people flock to the Keys every year for miniseason to get their bag limit of the sought-after crustaceans — six per person, per day in the Keys and Biscayne National Park.
The Florida miniseason ends at midnight Thursday. Regular season begins Aug. 6 and lasts until March 31.
Lobsters carapaces, the part that is not the tail, must be 3 inches long to keep. They must be measured in the water, and each person in the water diving or snorkeling for lobster must have a measuring device. Also, night diving during miniseason is prohibited in the Keys. All lobster hunting after dark must be done using bullynets.
For Thompson and his partner, Officer Zach Hoppe, their miniseason opening night was cut short after they conducted a safety stop on a man and woman sitting in a skiff on the bay and discovered the man, who was the only one of the two capable of driving the boat, was visibly intoxicated.
“Once we start to do a stop, it’s our job to keep everybody safe,” Thompson said.
Hoppe and Thompson put the man through a series of field sobriety tests, and the man became impatient, saying he could not grasp all the steps in the test. Hoppe and Thompson determined the man could not safely drive his vessel back to his hotel and they arrested him. They also had to tow the man’s skiff back to the FWC base and call the man’s wife a cab so she could get back to her hotel.
The remaining hours of Hoppe’s and Thompson’s shift were taken up booking the man into the jail at Plantation Key on a boating under-the-influence charge.
Before making the boating under-the-influence arrest, Thompson and Hoppe checked several boats for safety violations and illegal lobster fishing, but found most boaters and lobster hunters were up on the rules and compliant.
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office is also patrolling the water. Adam Linhardt, spokesman for the agency, said on Twitter that deputies have written tickets for undersized lobsters and at least one for going on more than one lobster hunt in one day.
In Miami-Dade County, FWC officers made at least one significant bust Wednesday. Three men were caught with 18 wrung tails (lobsters must remain whole until brought back to the dock) and 30 lobsters with puncture wounds on them, indicating they had been speared, which is not allowed during miniseason, said FWC Officer George Reynaud.
As far as the quantity and quality of the lobsters this year, those who’ve been out on the water have been impressed so far.
“It’s stacked out there,” said Pablo Guerra, 20, from Coral Gables. “Compared to last year, it’s insane.”
Pablo, his older brother Julian, and friends Chris Cruanyas and Nicholas Novo were diving the grass ledges of Soldier Key in Biscayne Bay.
“They’re way bigger than last year,” said Julian Guerra, 22. “There really weren’t many we had to throw back.”
Follow David Goodhue on Twitter @DavidGoodhue