Is Poaching Fish a Problem in Florida?


Poaching fish is certainly a problem in Florida, and I know that because I heard about it going on directly from the sister of one of the guy’s doing it. Actually, two of her brothers and a cousin were poaching fish from waterways in Florida around Tampa Bay. Here’s the story.

Castnet used to catch snook in Florida. Same technique poachers may use.
Very old photo, not showing poaching necessarily, but just illustrating how Florida fish poachers might go about it.

It was 1996 and I started dating this girl whose family moved from Vietnam over to Florida. The parents just risked everything and jumped on a boat with their six children ranging in age from four to twelve, and they started sailing away from Vietnam’s eastern coast. They were set upon by pirates off the coasts of Thailand and Indonesia. They had gold hidden in their children’s hair that the pirates soon found. Some of the women were raped. It was an incredibly sad story, and my girlfriend had tears in her eyes as she told me. She was just eight years old.

Eventually they arrived in Florida and were picked up by the US Coast Guard. They were processed as refugees. They settled in Tampa, Florida because they already had some relatives there who had somehow made it from Vietnam in the same manner. How they happen to just end up in Florida is beyond me, but that is what happened.

The entire family quickly went to work and saved enough money to start a small Chinese restaurant with some Vietnamese food items. Though the kids all went to school they were also forced to work at the restaurant long hours and every child did whatever they could to help the family survive and thrive in their new country.

I met my girlfriend in 1996, as I said. Their restaurant was doing OK by then and her brother had just opened up a very large and becoming very successful Chinese Buffet restaurant on Dale Mabry Boulevard in Tampa.

On a number of occasions, I remember seeing pickup trucks full of redfish and/or snook. These fish had all been caught the same night, and they were caught by a net. She told me a little bit about it, not knowing how much she could say before I turned them in. Apparently, they’d been netting inshore snook and redfish for years for their restaurants.

They’d go out at night with a small boat and cruise the mangroves, throwing the nets over and over to get as many fish as possible, and then get back to the small dock by their home where they could unload them quickly and secretly.

Now, you’re probably wondering if I was angry about it, or if I turned them in.

I was, and I didn’t.

I know some here will fault me, but I was dating the girl and was probably going to marry her. We dated almost five years before finally splitting up. I didn’t turn her family in for poaching when we split up either.

I don’t routinely turn my friends in for having smoked pot or for taking other illegal substances. I don’t turn in friends or family for speeding, or avoiding some local city code as they fix something at their home. I’m probably a lot like you.

Was I angry about the poaching? Hell yes. I did understand that families with nothing will do whatever it takes to feed their family and make a business work. There were probably few if any restrictions in their own country about taking fish with gill nets and they couldn’t see the harm in it knowing there were so many thousands of fish lining our waterways.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized it almost definitely wasn’t just her restaurant that used poachers, but it was probably MANY of the restaurants around the area. Around the state. Around the country.

You know what? It probably wasn’t just the Asians poaching fish. It was probably all kinds of Americans too. It was probably the little mom and pop restaurant you ate at since you were a kid who just couldn’t afford to buy and resell already legal-caught fish. It was probably the people who didn’t want to get a commercial license. It was probably people like someone in your family who has a restaurant that did something similar.

Poaching fish in Florida, I know was a serious problem as late as the 1990s. Is it a problem these days? The Florida Fish and WIldlife Commission have certainly improved their technology and they have decades of experience in finding these guys as they net fish illegally in the mangroves and rivers. Is it still happening on a large scale?

I’m not sure about that. If you have a poaching story, share it with us in the comments so we can all learn something.

A quick search online found articles about Florida’s rangers dealing with all kinds of poaching problems. Fish, bear, alligators, sharks, turtles, and turtle eggs, and other animals are all being targeted and poached on a regular basis.

Where I am now, in Southern Thailand, we have a poaching problem as well. Reticulated pythons, king cobras, and other snakes are poached for their skins, liver, gall bladder, bones, and other body parts. Florida has a massive number of waterways, and is certainly understaffed and not able to handle the scope of the poaching problem.

Would I turn in my girlfriend’s family today if I knew they were involved in poaching fish in Florida?

It’s a very tough question. I have seen the damage that it is doing, and I would maybe phone in an anonymous tip to help stop them from doing it today. We all change as people over time, don’t we? I’ve changed over the last twenty years and I have no sympathy for people who are targeting fish or other species illegally in Florida or anywhere else.

The owners of plenty of restaurants in Florida and across the nation refuse to buy poached fish. I wish more had this attitude. Our natural resources are being depleted at an alarming (horrifying) rate and if you can do you part when you see poachers on Florida waterways you frequent, we’ll be catching fish for a lot longer.


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About the Author

My name is Vern Lovic. I grew up in Pennsylvania fishing for trout in the streams and bass in the lakes. I’ve fished both coasts of Florida for more than a decade, but I’ve been primarily on the West Coast around St. Petersburg. I fish mostly from a Kayak and pier along with wade-fishing and shore fishing but I occasionally will go out on a boat with one of my friends.

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