MARCO ISLAND — Lt. Mitts Mravic says he has the greatest job in the world.
“We have the best toys,” he said. “We have ATVs, helicopters, big boats, little boats, helicopters, and trucks.”
Mravic heads up the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) marine division in Southwest Florida. Along with Officer Marc Shea, Mravic spoke to the Friends of Tigertail at the United Church of Marco on Thursday evening.
The FWC is responsible for keeping Florida’s natural creatures protected, and the “toys” they use are high-tech tools in their endless struggle against lawbreakers who are damaging our environment. Their tools also include firearms, as these law enforcement officers are empowered to arrest poachers, illegal fish-netters, or anyone who breaks the law.
“We’re the gun toters,” said Mravic, noting that when his officers confront illegal hunters in remote areas, the perpetrators are also armed with high-powered weapons, and expert in their use.
His agency has been central in bringing a number of high-profile cases in the Marco area recently. In one, FWC officers arrested poachers who took more than 4,000 pounds of fish in the Caxambas area, using illegal gill nets that kill every fish in a broad area.
“I can’t get into that specific case – it’s dragging through the court system,” said Mravic, but he showed the group a net like the one recovered the night of Sept. 15.
“We nicknamed this a ‘stealth net.’ It’s invisible in the water, and you can’t hear it as they let it out of the boat,” he said. “This net kills everything that goes into it, and it can cover an entire acre.”
Another local case, with Naval Academy cadets accused of illegally slaughtering birds, drew a clipped response.
“Can you comment on the bird shootings?” asked Susan Purvis.
“No. Birds were shot,” said Mravic, unable to discuss pending cases.
The FWC officers handle an enormous range of activities, from enforcing panther speed zones to rescuing loggerhead turtles, protecting manatees, and participating in search and rescue operations. They ran security when President George W. Bush spoke at a waterfront home in Naples, and responded to the Valujet crash in the Everglades.
In one day, Officer Shea worked with the National Park Service to recover the carcass of a protected sawfish in Everglades City, and then collected a 12-ft. Burmese python that had been hit by a vehicle in Collier-Seminole State Park.
After the “show and tell” portion of their presentation, Mravic and Shea took questions from the Friends of Tigertail in attendance. The first two concerned Burmese pythons, with Friends treasurer Ken Kubat asking for any update on using a beagle to sniff out the snakes. The officers had no information on python dogs, but did say they are becoming a problem.
“We do get calls. I’ve heard of Burmese pythons in people’s backyards,” he said. The snakes are extremely strong, he noted, and “in a hurricane, you don’t throw your python in the car,” making storms another opportunity for them to escape into the wild.
FWC officers check to see that commercial fishermen keep their catch properly iced, regulate stone crabbers, arrest hunters taking turkeys illegally, and even employ a lobster-sniffing dog, said Mravic. He showed the Friends of Tigertail group a photo of 100 pounds of goliath grouper filets, a protected species, the officers found hidden inside a fishing boat’s anchor locker.
“We measure fish for a living,” he joked, showing photos of undersized mangrove and lane snapper the agency had impounded.
With such a range of responsibilities, and a jurisdiction that covers the entire state and many miles out into the ocean, Collier County has a total of 16 FWC officers. They cannot be everywhere, said Mravic, and allocating their resources is a difficult balancing act.
The FWC works closely with local law enforcement agencies, said Mravic, praising the cooperation and joint training with the Marco and Naples police departments, and the Collier sheriff’s office. But protecting Florida’s wildlife is everyone’s responsibility, and ordinary people can provide extraordinary help.
Citizen involvement is key, he said, noting that tips from the public led to many of the cases the agency has successfully pursued. One of the most valuable tools for law enforcement, he said, is a cell phone with a camera.
“Get a picture. After that scene is gone, we can’t go back and recreate it.” In a gill netting case, he noted, photographic evidence was key. “We had a picture with the net, two people holding it, and one guy removing fish. It’s hard to argue with.”
Citizens can send tips, and cell phone photos, to 888-404-3922 (FWCC), the statewide dispatch center, said Mravic. Sworn statements are the most valuable, but informants may also remain anonymous.