By Mike Readling
When Palm Beach County installed 62, 1- to 2-ton pods just offshore from Ocean Ridge last year, the idea was to provide a breakwater for the beach
renourishment project it had in the works.
One of the byproducts of that venture was the variety of sea life the
artificial reef was going to attract in an area that was swimmable from shore.
What wasn’t planned was the daily group of spearfishermen who use the public
beach for access to fill their stringers with fish of every kind, leaving the
discard on the sea floor, according to some beachside residents.
These spearfishermen – there are three or four distinct groups, said local
resident Kim Jones – bully the swimmers, shoot with disregard for anyone around
them and seem to do so without any ramifications.
Eric Espanet, 43, a county pocket resident and local spear fisherman for fifteen
years, is familiar with the area and amateurs armed with spear guns. He
recounts a time last year when he was diving south of the inlet and a teenage
girl had a spear gun pointed within three feet of his face. As soon as he
surfaced, her boyfriend grabbed it away from her. “Any real spear fishermen would go beyond the swimming area
anyway,“ Espanet said, “where the fish are better, especially now with the new
Jones, however, said the spearfishers she’s talking about are not your
run-of-the-mill weekend amateurs. “These are not your normal every day snorkler
with a spear gun,” said Jones, who lives in a condo that overlooks the reef and
regularly exercises by swimming the reef line. “These guys are extremely
sophisticated. They’ve got these camouflaged blue wet suits. They’ve got
lag lines. They shoot everything and anything and what they decide they don’t
want, they leave in the sea floor, which attracts sharks. They are so
aggressive with their guns in and around swimmers.”
Jones said she has called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at
least 17 times and the nearby Ocean Club has called at least 12 times to report
the activity. She said police showed up one time and made an arrest, but only
because they were already in the area.
A spokesman for the Ocean Ridge Police Department said his department has not
received any calls about the spearfishermen. If they did, he said Ocean Ridge
PD would call the FWC or the Marine Patrol. Numerous messages left at the Palm
Beach Sheriff Marine Patrol unit located less than 100 yards from the beach
where the spearfishing is taking place were unreturned.
Al MacQueen, who has been with Ocean Rescue for 20 years, works as a lifeguard on the beach the spearfishers use to access the reef pods. He has seen
spearfishers taking illegal fish like snook, sharks and mangrove snapper but
said Ocean Rescue enforces the fishing statutes and he wasn’t aware of any
State law requires spearfishers to fish no closer than 100 yards from a public
bathing beach, said FWC spokesman Lee Schlesinger. As long as the spear fishers
are not within that 100 yards, they can use the shore for access and are
allowed to take as many fish as the regulations allow, assuming they have the
proper fishing license.
Paul Davis works for Palm Beach County Environmental Resource Management, the
department responsible for placing the pods which comprise the reef. He said he
didn’t have exact numbers on the distance of the pods from shore, but used a
scale model aerial picture and estimated the range is 300 feet from shore at
the south end, up to 600 feet at the north end.
“I can tell you the pods on the south end are definitely closer than 100 yards,” Jones
said. “I swim them every week from the beach and they are within 100 yards.
We just need some enforcement. They know what they’re doing is
wrong, there’s just nobody there to do anything about it.”
Erika Kraft contributed to this report.