A busy lobster mini-season in the Florida Keys resulted in several resource violations spotted by Florida Fish & Wildlife officers. Meanwhile, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said deputies and investigators stopped hundreds of vessels and made several arrests during the two-day season.

Among the arrests was a man who allegedly snatched several live queen conchs. 

Fifty-one-year-old Tony Ngoc Truong, of Houston, Texas, was taken to jail by deputies after he was found with a number of live queen conchs near the Channel 5 Bridge on July 27. According to the sheriff’s office, Truong was coming out of the water with a 5-gallon bucket and a gray shirt. As deputy Willie Guerra approached Truong, he threw his shirt under his vehicle.

Deputies looked underneath the car to find five queen conchs in the bucket and three more in his shirt. Truong was transported to the Plantation Key Detention facility. He posted a cash bond. His first court hearing was Aug. 1. He’s due back in court in Marathon before Judge James Morgan on Aug. 22 for an arraignment hearing. 

Tony Ngoc Truong is accused of possessing eight queen conchs.

A symbol of the relaxed pace of life in the Florida Keys, the slow-moving marine snail inhabits seagrass beds in Caribbean and western Atlantic ocean waters. The conch’s large, pink-lipped shell is valued among shell collectors, and its meat is a dietary staple for many Caribbean cultures. 

Harvesting, killing or harming queen conch in Florida waters is against the law. A person can harvest a queen conch, however, if the shell does not contain a live queen conch at the time of harvest and a live queen conch is not killed or removed from the shell. 

NOAA Fisheries and the Caribbean Fishery Management Council manage the queen conch fishery in federal waters. In December 2019, NOAA Fisheries initiated a review of the queen conch to determine whether listing the species as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act is warranted. NOAA said it’s still gathering information. 

FWC had several cases on day one of lobster mini-season. During a patrol near Channel 5 bridge, investigators Chris Mattson and Chris Araujo performed a resource inspection of a St. Augustine man who was diving on the oceanside. The man, identified as Marlin Walden, was found to be in possession of seven spiny lobsters. FWC said the man explained to investigators that he thought the bag limit was 12. He was cited for being over the bag limit. 

During the afternoon of July 27, Mattson and Araujo were patrolling the oceanside near Channel 2 bridge when they saw a diver surface with a dive bag with several lobsters. They boarded the vessel to perform a resource inspection and found that Leonel Plasencia, of Islamorada, had harvested 10 spiny lobsters, which is four more than the six per person, per day limit. He was cited for the over-the-bag limit. During the same stop, another diver surfaced and was found with nine spiny lobsters, of which two were undersized. Dale Hopta, of Miami, was cited for resource violations. 

Queen conchs discovered by Monroe County sheriff’s deputy Willie Guerra during a stop at Channel 5 Bridge. MCSO/Contributed

On day two, Mattson and Araujo were patrolling the waters near Long Key Bridge when they observed a vessel following a diver’s bubbles. As the diver surfaced, investigators identified themselves as FWC. Araujo noticed a catch bag at the bottom of the water. Reacting quickly, Mattson dropped a buoy in the area where the diver was. The diver, later identified as Osniedys Castillo, of Cutler Bay, allegedly had 16 legal size lobsters. He was cited for over-the-bag limit and interference with FWC officers. 

In the Lower Keys, FWC officer Daniel Jones was patrolling the area near Spanish Harbor Boat Ramp when he saw a family pull their vessel from the water at the boat ramp. Jones identified himself and conducted a resource inspection. The family reportedly had 20 spiny lobsters onboard, of which seven were undersized. 

One of the family members came forward and told Jones he caught most of the spiny lobsters and wanted to show how he was measuring the lobster. Jones watched the man, of Pace, Florida, incorrectly include much of the lobster’s eyestalk in the measurement making the spiny lobster to appear that it was greater than 3 inches. 

“The responsibility is on the fishermen,” said Jason Rafter, FWC public information officer. “When harvesting Florida spiny lobster, participants need to know how to properly use the gauge to measure the lobster and know the daily bag limits.”

On Summerland Key, FWC officer Austin Cobb responded to a dispatched complaint regarding two divers using a hookah dive rig, which was potentially causing navigational issues along a canal. Cobb arrived and conducted a resource inspection on the divers. One diver, of Summerland Key, had an undersized spiny lobster in his catch bag. The other diver, of Tarmac, Florida, had five undersized lobsters in his bag. He also was over the bag limit by one. Both divers were issued notices to appear for the resource violations.

(Monroe County Sheriff’s Office) 

  • 600 vessel stops/safety inspections/wildlife inspections
  • 4 arrests for wildlife violations and one for tampering with evidence
  • 18 mandatory notice to appear in court citations

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Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family (he's expecting a little boy in October).