BROOKSVILLE — Looking at possible jail time if convicted of illegally selling marine wildlife, Hernando Beach shrimpers Harley and Charity Rodriguez decided Thursday to instead plead no contest to several misdemeanor charges against them.
"We really had no choice,'' said Charity Rodriguez. "We have two kids and we're hurting financially. We needed to be able to earn a living."
Both were found guilty by County Judge Kirk Hitzemann on all charges and were sentenced to one year of probation. They faced jail time of 60 days on each of the four counts against them or a $500 fine for each count.
Assistant State Attorney Mike Conageski said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed to the terms. As part of the deal, the couple must also cooperate with wildlife officials in the state's ongoing investigation. They also have to pay more than $10,000 in fines and court costs.
The Rodriguezes were arrested in November along with six others after a lengthy sting operation conducted by the FWC that targeted area shrimpers and fishermen thought to be involved in illegal harvesting of state- and federally-protected marine life.
The agency's investigation involved setting up a fake company called One Tropical Way to lure prospective dealers of rare marine creatures such as sea horses, bay scallops, small sharks and other creatures brought in as so-called bycatch from shrimp nets.
Other charges involved licensed commercial shrimpers selling bait shrimp for human consumption.
Florida law says that after hauling in their catch from the water shrimpers are required to release all bycatch as quickly as possible to the water.
An FWC spokesman conservatively estimated that the group netted more than 100,000 peppermint shrimp, a tiny but popular species coveted by saltwater aquarium enthusiasts, that can be sold only by someone possessing a saltwater products license. The agency estimated the retail value of those shrimp alone would likely top $600,000.
Charity Rodriguez said her husband was not aware he was doing anything illegal when he agreed to an offer from a stranger, an undercover officer, who asked Rodriguez to sell him some shark meat, scallops and shrimp.
"We're not in this business to be criminals," she said. "The FWC should concentrate more on schooling people than trying to make an example out of some poor shrimpers."
Meanwhile, the misdemeanor cases against the other adult defendants, Jesse J. Rodriguez, 25, Michael Helmholtz, 49, Robert Ray McClure, 38, all of Spring Hill; and Patrick Howard Walsh, 58, and Gerald Richard Sylvester, 59, both of New Port Richey, are pending. A Hernando County juvenile was also arrested during the sting.
FWC spokesman Gary Morse said the agency had no comment because all the defendants in the case are still under investigation.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or 848-1435.