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Fine hangs over bait shop

The St. Petersburg institution is on the hook for illegal purchases from anglers. Fishermen say the practice is widespread.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published September 16, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG — Two middle-aged women perused the white coolers, shopping for $5.99-per-pound snapper and smoked mullet spread.

In another corner, a young couple with cell phones pressed to their ears tried on polarized sunglasses. A hulking man with a long, red beard looked at shiny fishing lures.

It’s a typical weekday morning at Mastry’s Bait and Tackle, a St. Petersburg institution for nearly 30 years. The rustic store at 1700 Fourth Street S is known as much for its colorful clientele and pictures of anglers displaying their catch as it is for fresh seafood and fishing gear.
But tough times are ahead for Mastry’s.

In 2002, the store was netted in an undercover sting and charged with illegally buying fish from recreational fishermen. A judge found the store’s owners guilty last year and levied a $105,000 fine — one of the largest penalties ever for an offense of this kind.

Dale Mastry, one of the store’s owners, fought back. In June, he filed an appeal in U.S. District Court, saying the government’s case against him was flimsy.

The appeal is still proceeding, but U.S. District Judge James S. Moody recently dealt Mastry a significant blow. Moody rejected a request to delay payment of the fine until after the appeal is settled, which means Mastry’s must quickly come up with $105,000.

Asked if his store can survive, Mastry shrugged.

“We’re a small business,” he said. “And that’s a tremendous fine.”

The investigation began in 2001 with a tip to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that recreational anglers were illegally peddling their catch to local restaurants and seafood dealers.

To the average person, that may sound like a minor offense. But those in the fishing industry say it’s a growing problem that hurts the commercial fishing industry by creating an uneven playing field.

Fish and Wildlife agents, along with officers from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, posed as tourists as they videotaped boats coming in and out of Hubbard’s Marina at John’s Pass in Pinellas County.

They quickly zeroed in on one boat: the Florida Fisherman II, a party boat out of Madeira Beach that ferries passengers on 36-hour trips to the Florida Middle Grounds, a popular fishing area.

According to court records, one group of regular customers was allowed to bring its own coolers on board, against company policy.
Hidden cameras caught these fishermen removing their coolers from the boat and driving to local businesses.

On Oct. 3, 2002, federal agents arrived at Mastry’s. In the store’s safe, they found handwritten records of cash sales from the fishermen that matched the agents’ records, court records said.

Next, the agents interviewed the fishermen, as well as Dale Mastry.

Also charged in the case was Nachman’s Native Seafood of Redington Shores, Matoi Sushi of Tampa and 12 recreational fishermen.
Mastry told the agents he paid cash for mangrove snapper, black grouper and amberjack caught on board the Florida Fisherman II, according to court records.

In his appeal, Mastry said he made his statement only because an agent convinced him he would get a reduced sentence if he cooperated.

The appeal goes on to criticize the government’s case, saying there were gaps in the agents’ surveillance that make it impossible to draw a firm link between the coolers seen coming off the Florida Fisherman II and the fish offered for sale at Mastry’s.

“The government in this instance asked the court to make the bold assumption that … these fish were not held for a legitimate reason, but were purchased in violation of the law,” the suit said. “However, the agency did not offer even a single witness who has been able to say that they saw any money whatsoever change hands.”

***

Those in the fishing industry say the illegal sale of recreational anglers’ catch is widespread and only getting worse.

The benefits of buying fish from individual fishermen are obvious. Their catch is typically less than two days old, whereas a commercial fisherman might be out at sea for two weeks.

Prices are also much lower because recreational fisherman don’t have many expenses and aren’t required to pay taxes on their catch, said Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association in Tallahassee.

“It’s totally unfair to a commercial fisherman or a fish dealer to have to compete with someone on the black market,” Jones said. “They’re stealing money and making all of us pay higher taxes.”

Commercial fishermen also must have their catch inspected to prevent the sale of undersized or diseased seafood. No such rules exist on the black market.

Approximately 2-million pounds of fish are sold through the back door each year, Jones said.

The problem is growing worse as the price of fuel rises and recreational fishermen look for ways to offset costs.

Offenders are nearly impossible to catch. So cases like Mastry’s send an important warning to the fishing community, Jones said.
Bob Spaeth, a spokesman for the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, agreed there’s a problem. But he said fines like the one imposed in Mastry’s case are far too high.

“For a small business, that’s just excessive,” Spaeth said.

***

For now, Dale Mastry is trying to remain optimistic. He said he did not want to discuss details of the appeal because it is ongoing.
But documents filed in U.S. District Court strike a gloomier note. If forced to pay the fine, Mastry’s may be pushed out of business.

“The end result would be a loss of jobs within the local economy and the closure of a family-owned and -operated business that has enjoyed success and respect in the St. Petersburg community,” the records state.

Mastry’s attorney, Mike Mastry, who is also his cousin, said they are discussing a payment plan with NOAA officials.

Meanwhile, they’ll move forward with their appeal.

“We’re working together,” Mike Mastry said. “We just have to see what happens next.”

Carrie Weimar can be reached at (813) 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 16, 2006, 23:21:16]


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