spiny lobster

Richard Elzey/Flickr

State wildlife investigators announced Tuesday that they've wrapped up a two-year investigation targeting what they say is a criminal conspiracy in the spiny lobster fishing industry.

Lobster is Florida's most valuable commercial fishery, with landings usually worth more than $40 million a year.

Investigators went undercover and conducted surveillance in what they called "Operation Thimblerig." Thimblerig is another term for shell game.

Three people face felony charges including racketeering, fraud and identity theft.

Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN

At 6 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning, Ernie Piton and his son dragged wooden lobster traps across their dock in Key Largo. They stabbed sharp wires through ripe, glossy fish heads, preparing for the grind of baiting and checking Florida spiny lobster traps. As the fishermen turned the key, rumbling their boat to life, they hoped for a good haul.

Monroe County Sheriff's Office

Marine thefts are a chronic problem in the Keys. Fishing gear, dive equipment, engines — sometimes even entire boats - are stolen from marinas, canals and backyards in the area.

Those thefts happen year-round, but there's a noticeable uptick in summer, especially during the annual two-day recreational lobster mini-season, when thousands of boaters come to the Keys. This year's mini-season is Wednesday-Thursday, July 26-27.

Nancy Klingener / WLRN

  Billy Causey has been in the Florida Keys since the early 1970s. And in that time, he's figured out a few things.

"There's some things you learn not to talk about. You know — religion, politics ... and mini-season," Causey said. "You don't go to a party in the Keys and talk about any one of those three."

Rob O'Neal / Florida Keys News Service

The annual spiny lobster season opens Thursday, when commercial trappers can start pulling traps from the water and divers and recreational fishers can start grabbing the crustaceans.

"We never know what's going to happen until they make those first pulls and we see what the market's going to bear," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.

NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr

The invasion of lionfish throughout Florida waters is a challenge to native Florida wildlife and to the ecosystems where they live. The state has organized derbies and training sessions on how to catch — and cook the fish — which have no natural predators here.

Nancy Klingener / WLRN

The spiny lobster season ended March 31. State biologists say it looks like the total catch will be slightly lower than last year — but the seafood that came to the market fetched record-high prices.