In the Florida Keys, you could land in jail for keeping lobster tails too small or stealing protected seafood from the ocean.
This is how seriously police and prosecutors go after people who break conservation laws.
According to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, a 51-year-old Houston man learned this Wednesday after stuffing the conch into a bucket and inside a shirt.
Tony Ngoc Truong was charged with a misdemeanor for harvesting the conch and jailed in the county jail. The Keys visitor didn’t get far in his conch-stealing scheme, deputies said.
Truong was coming out of the water, under the Channel Five Bridge near milepost 71.5, with a five-gallon bucket and a gray shirt. When deputies crossed his path, he threw his shirt under his vehicle. Truong had placed three conches in the shirt and had five more in the bucket, deputies said.
He was caught between the town of Marathon in the Middle Keys and the village of Islamorada in the Upper Keys.
“The conch were released alive,” said Adam Linhardt, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
Truong was taken to Stock Island County Jail. About four hours later, he was released without having to post bail, according to prison records.
It is unclear from prison records if he has legal representation. His arraignment is scheduled for August 27 at the Monroe County Courthouse.
He’s not the first to think he could get away with taking the conch, a slow-moving marine snail harvested illegally in Florida but a popular import from the Caribbean.
In recent years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has had a few conch poaching cases, including one in 2017 when a Texas woman was sentenced to prison for taking 40 conch.
All of the conch was returned to the ocean.
What is a “conch”?
Queen conch is found in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Bahamas and Bermuda, but commercial and recreational harvesting is generally prohibited in US waters.
Conch fisheries in the United States were closed in the 1970s due to overfishing. But that hasn’t stopped Americans from getting their hands on the tasty shellfish.
Conch meat is used to make conch salad and conch fritters in Key West and is a staple in the Bahamas. This is where the United States – a major meat importer – gets almost all of its conch.
Queen conch can live up to 40 years, measure up to 12 inches long and weigh up to 5 pounds.
But the conch shell is so symbolic in the Keys that locals born and raised in Key West call themselves “conchs.”
Key West High School’s mascot is the conch. The members of the football team are the Fighting Conchs while the softball team are the Lady Conchs.
In Key West, a “conch” is a point of pride, as it is used to describe a person who is native to the small island. Many locals only consider someone whose family goes back at least a generation or two to be a true conch.