Sure, everyone has told a "fish story" or two, and maybe some of us have even cut the tip of a fish's tail to get within the size limit(looks around nervously). But what about secret compartments? Filleting at sea to avoid detection? And possible violent reprecussions? Well, that's exactly what is happening in Ponce Inlet, FL.
On Dec. 20, marine patrol officers inspecting a fishing boat returning to the Ponce Inlet boat ramp discovered a secret compartment beneath its deck.
After removing bulkhead panel screws to open the compartment, 51 red snapper were found by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission law enforcement officers Chris Creese and Clay McDonough.
The catch egregiously exceeded the five-man crews' state limit of two red snapper per person in the Atlantic. And many of the snapper were shorter than the state's minimum-size limit of 20 inches.
Then on Saturday, a sportfishing boat returning from federal waters to Ponce Inlet was stopped and inspected by a marine patrol and 126 filleted red snapper were found bagged in a cooler. Charges for filleting fish at sea, bag limit and size limit violations are pending.
But surely they've encountered things like this in the past, right? Uh, apparently not so much.
The wildlife commission handed this second case off to its federal counterpart, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service Office of Law Enforcement, and federal agents are investigating.
One of them, special agent Richard Chesler, said, "Apparently we have an issue with that kind of activity in this area."
McDonough said the two incidents, which occurred within 23 days of each other, are the largest busts he's made in his 10 years on the force.
And while some know that there is a problem, they're scared to go on the record about it for fear of reprecussions. Which they say could be life-threatening.
Has Ponce Inlet become a hot bed for black market seafood?
More than a few local charter boat captains say yes, but they're not willing to say it on the record.
They worry their boats left unattended at docks overnight will be targeted. They worry about violence.
"Narc on one of these guys, you could get shot over something like this," said one local captain.
Like I said, if you've ever been fishing, chances are that you broke a law either intentionally or unintenionally. From not having the correct license, to using incorrect tackle or even violating the size limits. However, the scope of these infractions is much wider, and hopefully state authorities can put an end to it without anyone being shot, stabbed or gaffed.