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Chase is on for ladyfish poachers

In the dark of night, sheriff's officers pursue a skiff, gathering its catch and gill net, but suspects escape.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003

CLEARWATER -- Dwayne Somers thought the worst when he saw a truck pulling a skiff, packed to the gunwales with fish, race down the street in the opposite direction.

"I hope we are not too late," the Pinellas County sheriff's corporal said as he turned into the Seminole boat ramp. "It looks like they got an early start tonight."

For months, Somers had been playing cat-and-mouse with a well-organized group during the lucrative mullet roe season and now that it had turned its attention to the equally profitable harvest of ladyfish.

"Most of these guys are from out of county," Somers said. "They come in, fill their nets and then the next morning line up at the fish houses to sell their catch."

The long nets they use snag fish by their gills, hence the name gill nets. Gill nets have been banned in state waters since 1994, but poachers use them with impunity under the cover of darkness throughout the state.

"They can pick up two or three thousand pounds of fish in a single strike," Somers said. "And at a dollar a pound, that isn't bad for a night's work."

Ladyfish have little value in the United States, but shipped overseas, they are processed and turned into fish cakes for human consumption.

The sheriff's deputies and their counterparts with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission stop suspects and inspect their nets. But unless a suspect is seen taking ladyfish from state waters, there is little law enforcement officers can do.

"Look at those guys," Somers said, pointing to two skiffs loaded down with fish in the parking lot of the boat ramp. "They don't care who is watching. If we stop them, they will just say they caught them offshore in federal waters."

Ladyfish are an inshore species, found commonly in bays, estuaries and occasionally in freshwater rivers and streams. They spawn offshore, but the gill nets used to catch them are only 3 or 4 feet wide so they would be ineffective in the deep, federal waters that begin 9 miles offshore.

At the docks nearby, two more boats brimming with fish waited to be loaded onto trailers. Somers, not wanting to draw attention to his 10-year-old Chevy Blazer, made a U-turn and exited the parking lot.

"We are going to stick to the plan and head north," he said. "I think there are still plenty of netters out there tonight."

Somers got on the radio and checked in with the rest of his crew. Two deputies posing as fishermen were in the mangroves along Caladesi Island's eastern shore. Two more deputies positioned a "chase boat" at a nearby marina. Another two were patroling boat ramps in an unmarked vehicle. Somers and partner Ken Lilly would set up an observation post along the Intracoastal Waterway and search for illegal activity with their night-vision binoculars.

"We've heard from some of the legitimate commercial fishermen that these guys have been hitting this area hard at night," Somers said. "But to make the charges stick we have to catch them with their nets in the water."

Poachers are known to use "spotters" who position themselves strategically at bridges and boat ramps to warn their colleagues via cell phones of approaching law enforcement.

Somers had this in mind as he pulled into a private Palm Harbor boat ramp and spotted a trailer built to carry a mullet skiff parked off to the side. He checked the license plate and was told it was registered to a local charter boat captain. Somers waited, then watched as a boat slowly circled in the darkness, 50 feet out.

"We can't do anything here," he said. "We need to stick to the original plan."

He turned around and headed south, pulling over near a dock along Edgewater Drive. The wind was still, the air crisp as Somers scanned the distant shoreline with his night-vision glasses.

"There's somebody now," he said, pointing to the lights of a boat. "Could be our boys."

Somers kept his eye on the boat as it motored slowly north, then lost sight of it when it shut off its navigational lights. After a few moments of darkness, a spotlight split the night in short, five-second bursts.

"They are looking for fish," Somers radioed his fellow officers.

"We got 'em," Deputy Jonathon Adams responded. "They are heading our way."

Adams and partner K.M. Grissinger had motored to Caladesi Island in a 15-foot Ghenoe and dropped two fishing lines in the water. The suspects' boat circled twice, Adams told Somers over the radio, spotlighting as it went, then a third time, blacked out.

"It looks like they just set the net," Adams said.

The deputies said they tried to get closer, but the mullet skiff left the area. Then the skiff circled back and ran straight up to the deputies.

"Who's that?" someone yelled. "What do you want?"

Grissinger had rehearsed his answer.

"Got any bait?" he asked. "We ran out."

Someone aboard the mullet skiff said, "Sure. We've got plenty."

The deputies radioed that two ladyfish were tossed over and those on the skiff went back to their net.

Grissinger and Adams continued fishing and after the mullet skiff left, they reported to Somers.

"We need to get the helicopter in the air," Somers told the dispatcher. But before he could finish the request, Grissinger and Adams called and said those in the skiff were retrieving the net.

"We're moving in," Adams said.

The deputies got within 50 feet of the skiff, then turned on their spotlight and yelled, "Sheriff's Department. Put your hands in the air."

A net was dropped from the stern and the skiff accelerated. Grissinger and Adams tried to follow but got caught in the net.

"Don't worry, we've got them," said Deputy Perry Warner, aboard the nearby chase boat. "There they go."

Deputy Charlie Tita, at the helm of the 23-foot Skeeter, pulled alongside the skiff and Warner shouted: "Pull over, you are under arrest."

The skiff zigzagged through the barrier islands and tried to ram the bow of the sheriff's boat before turning up a dead-end canal at Island Estates. Deputies then watched, stunned, as the homemade skiff disappeared beneath a foot bridge that hung just a few feet over the water.

"We lost them," Warner told Somers. "They slipped under a bridge."

Somers got back on the radio and contacted the helicopter, which had arrived on scene about 30 seconds too late. While it searched with a spotlight, Somers headed toward Island Estates.

He stopped at the foot of the bridge that connects Clearwater to Clearwater Beach and left his partner, Lilly, with instructions to block any avenue of escape. He proceeded to Island Estates, where Clearwater police and canine units from the Sheriff's Department had cordoned off the area.

It didn't take long to find the mullet skiff, which was tied up to a dock behind some condominiums. Adams and Grissinger, meanwhile, recovered the abandoned gill net, which was packed with ladyfish.

"I think these guys are long gone," Somers said after two hours of searching on foot.

So he headed back to the Seminole boat ramp, where Deputy David Danzig and Cpl. Brad Millican were watching a truck and trailer in the parking lot. Somers hoped the suspects would return and retrieve the vehicle, but after awhile, that appeared unlikely. So the deputies retrieved the skiff, the net loaded with fish and began processing the crime scene.

According to the license plates and boat registration, the truck, trailer and skiff belonged to a husband and wife in Land O'Lakes.

"Call the owner and tell them we found their boat," Somers told Danzig. "I bet you they say it was stolen."

Danzig returned a few minutes later: "She said the last time she saw the boat it was parked in her yard."

Generally, the deputies would seize the truck, trailer and boat, sell the fish, then destroy the nets, but because the vehicles were reported stolen, they would be returned to their owners.

Danzig, meanwhile, searching the skiff, found a pair of hip waders. Written inside was a name.

"Here we go," Somers said. "Now we've got something to work on."

POSTSCRIPT: One week later, on Jan. 14, Sheriff Everett Rice distributed a wanted poster to local fish houses. On Jan. 15, a 19-year-old Land O'Lakes man surrendered to authorities in Pasco County. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office is scheduled to meet with sheriff's deputies Tuesday to determine what if any charges will be filed. The investigation is continuing.

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