On May 4, 2020, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Division of Law Enforcement documented a commercial fishing vessel ” Twister” from Big Pine Key allegedly illegally fishing in the Tortugas South Ecological Reserve.
The case was initiated by Officer Jeremy Foell of the FWC Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) program. Officer Foell utilized NOAA’s Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) to conduct a routine check of the activity of vessels required by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries on federally permitted commercial reef fish vessels.
The check revealed a commercial fishing vessel inside the reserve in a transit-only area where anchoring, fishing, snorkeling, and diving are prohibited. VMS indicated the vessel was inside the Tortugas South Ecological Reserve for approximately 13 hours. Ofc. Jeremy Foell, Ofc. Jason Richards, Ofc. Austin Cobb, and Lt. Josh Peters immediately departed Key West on the OPV Trident” to intercept the vessel.
At approximately 03:45 PM the officers located the commercial fishing vessel apparently actively fishing by hook and line inside Tortugas South Ecological Reserve. While approaching the commercial fishing vessel, an undersized mutton snapper was discarded into the water by a crewman. The undersized fish was recovered by the officers. A marine fisheries inspection was conducted and revealed the commercial fishing vessel was in possession of several hundred pounds of reef fish inside the closed, “no-take” area.
FWC worked this case in cooperation with its federal partner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement (OLE). NOAA OLE provides funds to state marine conservation law enforcement agencies under Joint Enforcement Agreements for patrol services in support of the federal mission.
The commercial vessel was escorted back towards Key West, FL, where the FWC met with a NOAA OLE patrol vessel and crew to transfer escort duties back to port. The case was transferred to NOAA OLE due to the numerous federal violations.
At approximately 08:00 AM the following day, approximately 728 pounds of catch was offloaded and seized in Key West by NOAA OLE.
The vessel owner and operator face multiple Federal violations to include: Anchoring inside Tortugas South Ecological Reserve, Failing to remain in continuous transit through Tortugas South Ecological Reserve, Fishing inside Tortugas South Ecological Reserve, Possession of Undersized Mutton Snapper, Interference with Law Enforcement and Commercial Harvest of Amberjack during the Closed Season (Gulf Federal Waters). Final determination will be made upon completion of a review of the evidence by the NOAA Office of General Counsel.
Michael Conrad, 30 Years of Age of Cudjoe Key, FL
Michael Hilliard, 28 Years of Age of Cudjoe Key, FL
Caleb Greenwood, 22 Years of Age of Lakeland, FL