Photo by KELLY FARRELL, Staff // Buy this photo
MARCO ISLAND — While four fishermen were out looking for their big catch Friday, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers netted a big catch of their own. When first caught by FWC Friday morning, four men each faced at least one third-degree felony charge. As of Tuesday afternoon, additional charges were mounting against the men who caught about 4,000 pounds of fish in their gill nets, FWC spokeswoman Gabriella Ferrara reported.
“This is a big case for us,” she added.
The case was made as officers worked a net detail at about 2 a.m. on Friday in Caxambas Pass, off Marco Island.
The men each faced a third-degree felony charge for use of monofilament entangling nets, or gill nets, as of FWC’s investigation Friday. An additional felony charge has mounted and more misdemeanors are pending.
A legal net cannot be more than 500 square feet and the gill nets seized by FWC officers were about 48,000 square feet.
Carey S. Arthur, 38, of Naples; Daryl G. Ankney, 26, of Bonita Springs; Kirkwood J. Smith, 41, of Naples; and Scott J. Mobley, 34, of Ruskin, Fla., which is south of Tampa, are facing a second felony charge for operating their boat equipped with the net in state waters.
“If you have one of these boats, you have to go directly to federal waters. You can’t hover, drift, stop to smoke a cigarette or enjoy the sunset (in state waters),” FWC Lt. Mitts Mravic said.
The two boats, black and grey, were running without navigation lights and apparently working together, according to Friday’s arrest report.
“These guys were trying to use the cover of darkness to fish with the expectation we weren’t out,” Mravic said.
Officers stopped the two boats and found approximately two tons of varying fish species including, ladyfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, pompano, spotted seatrout, bonnethead shark and blacktip shark, in the entangling net.
“It’s not discriminatory. It catches and kills everything that gets caught in it,” Mravic said.
Some of the fish were still alive and could not be removed from the nets without killing the fish, he said.
“That’s the problem with these entangling nets. It’s why they’re also called gill nets. The fish get caught around the gills, where they breathe, and there is no way to free them without killing them,” said Mravic.
It took about four hours for investigators to empty the nets and will take several days to gather all the evidence and charges, investigators say. Charges will include misdemeanors for catching about 70 fish that were either over-size, under-size or illegal fish species, Mravic said.
By noon, all the fish seized were sold to a local fishhouse, which was the highest of three bidders, for $.25 per pound, he added.
The proceeds are being kept in escrow, pending the outcome of the case, according to Tuesday’s prepared release by the FWC.
Two commercial well boats, which have the engines in the bow of the boat to run in shallow water and nets in the back of the boat, were seized.
“We hope this sends a message to the fishing community that we are out there, protecting the state’s marine life,” FWC Capt. Alfredo Escanio reported in a prepared release Tuesday.
Investigators said they are still investigating whether it was the first time these four men were caught fishing by illegal methods.
Repeat offenders risk losing their fishing licenses.
The two felony charges against Smith, who also goes by Brian Hamilton, Mobley, Ankney and Arthur could come with fines up to $5,000 per charge and five years imprisonment each. Additional misdemeanor charges are pending and a civil penalty of $2,500 to $5,000 may also be added, FWC investigators reported.
In total, charges could lead to more than 10 years imprisonment and more than $15,000 for each offender.
“It’s sad when guys like this make money this way when you have good, honest commercial fishermen taking 20 hours for a catch like this. It’s an all day affair to catch 2 tons of fish legally and it took them about 15 to 20 minutes,” Mravic said.