Bogus lobster-trap tags raise industry concerns

A weak harvest of spiny lobster this year could be linked to climate change — or crime.

“It could be the effect of climate change,” Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said Thursday. “It also could be that a large illegal harvest is going unreported.”

Last summer, state and federal wildlife officers seized 1,512 counterfeit lobster-trap tags from a Miami-Dade County man. Ramon Rojas, 44, of Hialeah was arrested. Some of the fake tags were found on traps Rojas was fishing in the Lower Keys.

Trap tags are issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to regulate the number of lobster traps in state water.

If a trap catches 10 pounds of lobster in season, Kelly said, Rojas had to potential to pull in 15,000 pounds of lobster, possibly worth more than $100,000.

“We have no idea how many illegal traps may be out there,” Kelly said. “That’s a whole lot of product going up the road.”

Kelly said he recently met with top FWC enforcement officers and fishery managers to discuss improving the tag system to curtail fake tags.

“Are we being deceived by illegal traps?” he said. “There’s no way to know but our fishermen with decades of experience say it seems like there are more traps out there than ever.”

Last season, Monroe County fishermen reported catching about 4.9 million pounds of spiny lobster — nearly 90 percent of the statewide harvest.

Since the season’s opening on Aug. 6, this year’s catch has been notably lower, Kelly said. Final numbers will not be available until after the season closes March 31.

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