BROOKSVILLE — For more than five years, authorities say, the commercial bait fishermen hauled in nets laden not only with bait shrimp but with sharks, sea horses and scallops.
Typically, shrimpers toss this so-called by-catch back into the water, as state law requires those without proper licenses to do. But this handful of shrimpers from Hernando and Pasco counties instead stashed huge numbers of this marine life in secret, nonaerated compartments aboard their vessels and headed for shore.
There, the fishermen sold whatever creatures survived to buyers as far away as New York and Amsterdam, according to state wildlife officials who said the illegal operation developed into a multimillion-dollar scheme.
Alerted by suspicious neighbors, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission set up a fake company called One Tropical Way about six months ago. They put out bogus brochures, business cards and even Internet sites and started buying up the illegally obtained sea life.
The undercover operation ended Thursday when the FWC netted five Hernando County residents, two Pasco County men and an unidentified juvenile on a variety of charges related to the sale and possession of the saltwater creatures.
Among the charges were that the licensed commercial shrimpers sold bait shrimp for human consumption. The FWC explained that bait shrimp do not meet the more rigorous health and product safety standards required for food shrimp.
FWC spokesman Gary Morse would not identify who bought the bait shrimp as food shrimp, but he said none of it was sold locally.
Arrested were Harley Jay Rodriguez, 29, and Charity Lynn Rodriguez, 25, both of 3247 Hibiscus Drive, Hernando Beach; Jesse J. Rodriguez, 25, of 545 Swallow Lane, Spring Hill; Michael Helmholtz, 49, of 5001 Caliente St., Spring Hill; Robert Ray McClure, 38, of 6163 Piedmont Drive, Spring Hill; Patrick Howard Walsh, 58, of 6638 Oelsner St., New Port Richey; and Gerald Richard Sylvester, 59, of 7419 Astor Drive, New Port Richey. An unidentified juvenile was also charged.
Morse would not elaborate on how the shrimpers from different counties knew each other except to say that they were all from the local shrimper community. "These people weren't new to this,'' he said. "It was a large operation and they had a lot of help."
FWC Capt. Andy Krause said in a news release, "Not surprisingly, some of these individuals have been arrested before on the same charges, but this time they face enhanced penalties for repeat offenses.''
The FWC conservatively estimated that the group netted more than 100,000 peppermint shrimp, a tiny but popular species coveted by saltwater aquarium enthusiasts.
Morse said the retail value of those shrimp alone would likely top $600,000. A saltwater products license is required to commercially harvest peppermint shrimp.
Morse said that the suspects also engaged in collecting bay scallops, sea horses, shark fins and protected sharks, which are illegal to harvest anywhere in the state.
"We're certain that the value of the entire haul over time would easily be in the millions," Morse said.
Though most of the charges filed against the suspects were first- and second-degree misdemeanors, Morse said it didn't discount the severity of the ecological threat that such illegal activity poses to the fragile ecology of the gulf.
"If it continued unabated, there was a possibility it could do serious damage to some of those species over time," Morse said.
Morse said that because some of the marine life is protected by federal law, the suspects may also face charges of violating of the Lacey Act, which makes it illegal to transport endangered species across state lines.
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or 848-1435.