ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. - The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is investigating a case of extreme turtle egg poaching after a man is accused of stealing hundreds of them from a beach on the east coast.
They're one of the most protected and beloved species in Florida, the loggerhead sea turtle. So much so that the fine for stealing one of its precious eggs is $100 a piece.
Investigators say James McGriff could be forced to pay up to $35,000. He's on the hook for poaching 299 of them. A record says Florida Fish and Wildlife Capt. Guy Carpenter.
"In my experience, in my 12 years, [this is] the biggest sea turtle egg case I've seen," said Carpenter.
The case unraveled Friday when a woman says she spotted McGriff digging up a sea turtle nest on a St. Lucie County beach and called 911.
"By the time we got there, he had already left the beach and was in a construction site trying to hide from us," said Carpenter.
When investigators caught up with McGriff, they discovered a backpack full of sea turtle eggs. He faces three charges, among them, possessing stolen sea turtle eggs and disturbing a nest, which are both third degree felonies. Detectives say this is not a common crime.
"However, they happen enough that we have to be on the lookout for this particular crime," explained Carpenter.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service considers Florida a crucial state for loggerhead sea turtles. Ninety percent of its nests in the US are on Florida beaches. Perhaps that explains why McGriff, who's been arrested for poaching and selling eggs before, was in Florida in the first place.
"There is a black market for them," said Carpenter. "People do eat them, so that may have been his motive."
The eggs were returned to the beach and reburied. McGriff remains in jail on a, $11,250 bond. Investigators say he could also face federal charges.