- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

ISLAMORADA, Fla. (AP) - The list of duties are stacked high for Florida Fishing Wildlife Conservation Commission officers in Monroe County. Because the Florida Keys are synonymous with gin-clear waters and a 2,900-square-mile national marine sanctuary, officers are tasked with protecting this natural resource, its inhabitants and its visitors.

A recent Tuesday on the water aboard FWC Officer Bobby Dube’s vessel gave the Free Press a glimpse of how these officers set out to protect the world’s third largest barrier reef.

There are approximately 40 FWC officers, not including lieutenants, spread throughout the Keys - a number far outmatched by the county’s nearly 30,000 registered vessels. Of the 20 in the Upper Keys, there are four undercover officers operating unmarked vessels.

According to Dube, the number of officers here has not risen since the 1990s despite an increase in the number of boats on the water. Dube said his workload increased significantly in 1999 when state legislation combined the Florida Marine Patrol and Florida Game and Freshwater Commission. The resulting commission’s jurisdiction expanded to include state and federal parks. FWC patrols the Everglades National Park and five state parks in the Upper Keys alone.

These officers log between 40 and 50 hours of vessel patrolling per week. They often work alone. Their work takes them to remote areas where other police agencies can’t get to.

Being an FWC officer demands the ability to work independently and strong seamanship skills. And like Dube, FWC officers need to be motivated and self-reliant in “catching the bad guys.”

Under state law, FWC officers can conduct boating safety inspections and marine fisheries inspections when it’s evident people have been fishing. Technically, FWC officers can open coolers and measure harvests - without probable cause. They can check personal flotation devices, fire extinguishers, flare guns, whistles, vessel lights and anything harvested from the sea.

FWC officers have the broadest jurisdiction of any law enforcement officer in the state of Florida. In addition to being cross-deputized with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, FWC has cooperative agreements with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And on land, they have the authority to pull vehicles over for speeding or other infractions, issue citations and make arrests.

If that isn’t enough to contend with, Monroe County often leads the state in boating accidents or deaths. In 2016, Monroe County had 106 boating accidents, resulting in 53 injuries and three fatalities. It has consistently ranked in the top three in fatalities since 1989 or at least when Dube began his career with the FWC.

At one point, Dube reflected on his years spent patrolling the waterways. He said the water is as clear as it was when he was a boy, which makes him smile. He’s proud to have played a role in keeping area waters healthy and vibrant.

He recalled it being the idea of having “an office at sea” that initially attracted him to the job. It’s just a bonus that it’s provided him and his family with a viable way to live here in the Keys.

He then added that he has less than two years before he can officially retire.

The clear and calm conditions Tuesday were ideal for commercial sponger Jorge Lopez, 64, from Miami. He was aboard a small wooden vessel almost filled with sponges. His nimble agility aboard his boat evidenced a long life at sea.

During a stop, Dube measured the sponges, ensuring they were of proper size. He found a baby lobster and a coquina shell living within the sponges and returned both to sea.

If an FWC officer finds anything harvested out of season or not compliant in size regulation, it can be seized and the offenders can be arrested. If anything is still alive, it’s let go.

Further along the channel, there was a grounded boat. A group of visitors had rented the boat and missed the channel marker. As the tide ebbed, there were two other groundings, but since no one was trying to power-motor off the bottom, Dube issued warnings instead of citations.

One couple from Michigan who missed a posted “No motorized access” sign seemed shocked that it was a finable offense. They said they have been visiting the Keys “for years” but somehow didn’t know this.

Running aground starts as a $90 ticket, and depending on how much bottom is dredged, that fine can rise. Seagrass bottom goes by the foot.

Scores of short pilings are scattered throughout offshore waters. They line old prop scars and groundings to attract birds to land there and fertilize the seagrass below.

Dube confessed that he had run aground once before. He said it was long ago at night - without his lights on and before he had GPS on his boat. An FWC vessel does not have to have running lights on at night during a patrol.

So he knows groundings can happen to anyone.

Dube is hopeful the warnings will encourage boaters to take a safety course, be more aware of depths and tides, or learn more about the fragility of the the Keys’ environment.

___

Information from: The Key West (Fla.) Citizen, https://www.keysnews.com

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