On Tuesday, April 5, FWC officers aboard a patrol vessel and aviation unit noticed a stone crab vessel in closed zone 2 in the closed areas of the Big Bend stone crab – shrimping zones. Authorities said they saw the boat making circles in the area to retrieve their traps from the bottom, actively fishing their traps in a closed area.
“When the vessel crew of the 'Nauti Crab' noticed our patrol vessel headed toward them, the crew dropped all of the stone crab gear to the bottom,” Lt. Scott Smith said. “The captain stated they had broken down and just fixed their vessel. They insisted they had not been crabbing in that area.”
However, FWC officers saw that all crew members were wearing slickers, common when working stone crab traps.
"They were using a long line gear setup, with 60 to 80 traps all connected on one line underwater and invisible to the eye," Smith said. "Each line should be marked by a buoy; however, not a single line we located was marked."
Officers documented the evidence and followed the Nauti Crab vessel back to its home port of Hernando Beach where authorities seized the boat's GPS units along with drugs and paraphernalia for evidence.
Using the GPS coordinates, FWC officers were able to follow the direction of where the crew was working. Dragging a grapple behind the patrol vessel, officers found 57 stone crab traps. Officers continued to discover traps in the closed zone and discovered more than 525 traps, all belonging to the same vessel.
Andrew Bertine, 54, of Lecanto; Scott Lefke, 53, of Homosassa; Matthew Bransfield, 40, of Citrus Springs; and George Boynton, 48, of Homosassa were each arrested and transported to Citrus County Jail.
They were charged with 10 misdemeanors and two felonies for possession of undersized stone crab claws, possession of methamphetamine, possession of drug paraphernalia, and no aerial display of stone crab numbers or buoy.
Under regulation, a stone crab harvester can take a daily bag limit of 1 gallon of claws per person or 2 gallons per vessel, whichever is less. Each vessel may also use up to five stone crab traps per person.
The minimum claw size limit is 2 7/8 inches. Recreational and commercial stone crab harvest season remains open through May 1.