Pino said the two ringleaders, David Vazquez, 43, and Jorge Escalona, 43, both of Naples, had quit their construction jobs to become full-time poachers.
“They concentrated their efforts on poaching and pilfering Florida’s natural resources,” he said.
Each man was captaining a vessel. Vazquez was stopped in Gordon Pass off Naples and Escalona was stopped in Caxambas Pass off Marco Island. Neither man has a commercial fishing or sales license.
Both vessels had hidden compartments in which illegal catches were hidden. Vazquez, who was stopped first, initially denied wrongdoing but a K-9 officer sniffed out the hidden compartment to find two Goliath grouper filets and 85 undersized grouper. Escalona’s vessel had a similar compartment concealing parts of a butchered sea turtle, 13 Goliath grouper filets and 88 undersized grouper.
“We were able to catch them red-handed,” Pino said.
In more than a dozen years of service, Pino said he’s seldom heard of sea turtles being taken.
“They claim it’s a delicacy,” he said. “Obviously there’s a market for them.”
According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, thousands of the protected species are killed for food in Central America and Asia every year. Green sea turtles, loggerheads, ridleys and even hawkbills and leatherbacks are killed and eaten, and in parts of Mexico turtle meat is eaten in observance of religious holidays.
“We want to believe it’s not very common,” Pino said.
Goliath grouper and sea turtles are species protected both federally and by the state of Florida.
Also arrested on Escalona’s vessel were Jose Escalona Ferral, 45 and Adnier Lobaina Lopez, 37. A juvenile was released to a guardian.
The men face a litany of charges including felonies that could mean 5-year prison terms and $5,000 fines.
“This investigation took on a life of its own,” Pino said. “Every time we would open a door, another door would open. The more we looked into these two individuals the more we learned of the extent of their criminal activity. We spent hundreds of man-hours. It was an intense investigation to say the least.”
Eve Haverfield of Fort Myers is the founder of Turtle Time Inc., a volunteer organization that since 1989 spots, tracks and protects sea turtles and nests in southwest Florida.
"Good grief!" Haverfield said in an email response. "And to whom might they be able to sell these sea turtle parts? I hope the book is thrown at them."