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Huge mullet catch seized

Authorities say two men used a banned net to haul in $8,000 worth of fish prized for their roe.

By TERRY TOMALIN
Published December 13, 2005


[Times phto: Brendan Fitterer]
Pelican Point Seafood owner Julie Russell, top right, tosses mullet from a boat as James Hardenbrook untangles more from a gill net on Monday in Tarpon Springs. Russell bought the haul from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which seized it.

Tipped about illegal gill netting, authorities were searching the shoreline near the Courtney Campbell Parkway late Sunday when they encountered a lookout boat.

Moments later, powering across the choppy waters, they caught a glimpse of a blacked-out mullet skiff, silhouetted against the moonlight.

As the three officers approached the darkened vessel, they found a net loaded with mullet.

"The net was so full of mullet it was too heavy to dump," said Lt. Roger Young of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "And once they had all of those fish on board, even if they did see us coming, their boat was too heavy to run."

The arrests of two men and seizure of 6,000 pounds of mullet worth $8,000 highlights the undercover cat-and-mouse game that goes on this time of year between authorities and poachers hoping to realize huge profits.

It's not the fish that poachers are after.

"The fish are valued for their roe," said Behzad Mahmoudi, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "The eggs are frozen and shipped to Taiwan, where they are considered quite a delicacy just in time for the Chinese New Year."

Cold fronts, such as the one that dropped temperatures into the low 50s Sunday night, tell black mullet that it is time to spawn. The fish bunch up into schools and are easy pickings for poachers looking to make a quick buck.

"We have heard that they can make as much as $10,000 in a night," Young explained. "That is a lot of money for a couple of hours' work."

Poachers typically work in teams, Young said, and Sunday night was no exception.

"We put in at the Courtney Campbell Boat Ramp around 9:45 p.m. and ran into a boat pretty quickly that was obviously a decoy," he said.

The illegal mullet trade is so lucrative that poachers will pay a "spotter" $1,000 a night to stand on a bridge and raise the alarm if law enforcement arrives.

"On those cold, cold nights when the mullet are on the run, the only people on the water are us and the bad guys," said Sgt. Dwayne Somers of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit.

Poachers usually employ illegal gill nets because one strike will catch 100 times more fish than a single throw of a cast net.

In 1994, voters overwhelming voted to ban entangling or gill nets from state waters. But the illegal netting has flourished, particularly at night, despite stiffer penalties enacted in January 2004 which make such crimes a third-degree felony.

"The new penalties helped get rid of a lot of part-time poachers," said Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Florida Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association. "But the hard-core guys don't seem to care. There are plenty of them out there in full force."

State and local law enforcement officers coordinate their efforts during the peak mullet season of mid November to mid January.

When authorities heard gill netters would be putting in at the Courtney Campbell Parkway on Sunday night, the state deployed its antipoaching unit.

Wildlife officers Kristin Cason, Liz McCoy and Raymond Sherertz approached the vessel and found a net loaded with mullet.

"They had just brought it in," Young said. "The fish were still wiggling."

Officers charged 30-year-old Justin Castell Sawyer, a self-employed landscaper from Palm Harbor, with the illegal use of a gill or entangling net, a third-degree felony punishable by up to $5,000 and five years in jail.

Sawyer, who also has arrests for domestic battery and aggravated assault, was known to law enforcement officers.

"In May of 2004, I helped him get a disabled Waverunner back to the dock," said Somers of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office. "He bragged about his netting activities. He said good luck trying to catch us. I'll never forget that."

Calvin E. Broadhead, a 28-year-old from Palm Harbor, also was charged with illegal use of a gill net and two misdemeanor drug charges.

Both men were released from a Hillsborough County jail after posting bail, Young said.

About 80 percent of the mullet sold in Florida are caught on the Gulf Coast, primarily from Tampa Bay south to Naples.

Before the net ban, the harvest averaged 15-million to 27-million pounds per year.

After the constitutional amendment went into effect, the catch leveled off to 5-million to 10-million pounds per year.

The majority of those mullet are harvested by licensed commercial fishermen who use hand-thrown cast nets to capture their fish.

"There are probably about 55 boats who work it regularly during the roe season," said Robert McCurdy, who works 11 months of the year as a boat salesman for O'Neill's Marina in St. Petersburg. "It is hard work but worth it."

With roe mullet selling for $1.70 a pound, a cast netter such as McCurdy can still earn $9,000 a week during peak season.

"We start hurting," he said, "if the gill netters get to the fish before us."

[Last modified December 13, 2005, 01:31:15]


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