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by Rick Farren, Communications Director of CCA Florida

With the use of computer chip technology wildlife officers are making life difficult for outlaw fish trappers in the Gulf of Mexico.

Law enforcement officers have introduced a new tool in their effort to curb illegal fish trapping in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. The result—an arrest of two major trap poachers and confiscation of more than a ton of illegally caught reef fish.

Dubbed Operation Red Trap, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers first located a dozen illegal fish traps about 25 miles west of Steinhatchee. They pulled some of the traps, marked the fish with data chips, and returned the traps to their original locations. After plainclothes officers observed a vessel pulling the traps they moved in and escorted the trappers to a fish house.

At the dock—to the surprise of the poachers and a small crowd of local fishermen—the officers pulled out a hand held scanner and quickly located one of the marked fish. The chip was crossed referenced with the latitude and longitude of the trap and added to the evidence.

The two illegal trappers were arrested and their catch of 2,126 pounds of grouper, grunts and sea bass was confiscated. More important, illegal trappers working in the northern Gulf now have to wonder which fish in their traps could lead to their arrest.

Operation Red Trap is the most recent episode in a year-long effort by the FWC to reduce rampant illegal fish trapping in the Big Bend region of the Panhandle. So far they’ve confiscated more than 100 illegal fish traps and issued more than a dozen arrest citations.

The trappers are mostly harvesting red grouper, black sea bass and white grunts for commercial markets. “It’s been ongoing for years and it’s an enormous abuse of our Gulf resources,” said Lt. Bruce Cooper, Taylor County Watch Commander.

The illegal trapping is taking place in the Gulf of Mexico Stressed Area which along the Big Bend is a designated strip of federal water between state waters (nine miles offshore) and the ten-fathom break (approximately 20 miles offshore). The area is closed to trapping by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) because of the considerable fishing pressure it receives. Fish trapping is legal for permitted commercial fishermen in the federal waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico outside of the Stressed Area. Only pinfish and sea bass traps are legal in state waters.

To disguise their activities, the trappers typically use a “pop-up” device which consists of a zinc strip that’s used to hold together a loop in the buoy line and keep the buoy underwater. The zinc slowly dissolves over a predetermined period of time and the buoy simply pops to the surface. They also use camouflaged buoys that are made of regular crab trap buoys cut in half, painted black or blue, and tied so the flat side stays up.

All trapping cases in the federal Stressed Area, whether made by state or federal officers, are handled administratively by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has been handing down fines of between $3,000 and $7,000.

One of the most important factors in the FWC’s successful anti-trapping efforts was the commissioning last year of a 27-foot Edgewater which allows officers to safely work offshore for longer periods of time. They also now have the use of advanced radar and plotting equipment to help locate trappers from a distance.

“These trap details head offshore at 6 a.m. and usually aren’t back until midnight,” said Cooper, adding, “We’re not going to let up, not while there are so many traps still out there.”

Good Work Officers
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