The men – Jose Santos Lopez, 26; Arturo Velazquez Barcenas, 49; Pedro Aquilar Bodinez, 32; Jose L. Ayala-Mejia, 40; Rolando Domingo Aguilar, 18; and Melvin Alvarado Nazar, 38 – were charged with illegal entry into Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area and with possession of a palmetto berry.
The men were arrested, according to a FWC report, after officers learned a pickup truck had entered the wildlife management area and were attempting to exit without properly checking in or out, and not paying the required daily-use fees. FWC officers stopped the vehicle before it left the wildlife management area, and found the men as well as the 5,000 pound of berries.
Palmetto berries are a common food source for wildlife, like the Florida black bear and turkeys, said Ed Carlson, the director of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Collier County. The berries are also a target for people looking to make some money, especially since palmetto berries are said have medicinal uses and can be sold to pharmaceutical companies for profit.
Carlson said the berries are used as herbal remedies to treat “male prostate problems.”
Collectors can get up to $1.26 a pound, said Gary Morse, a spokesman for FWC.
That means the Immokalee men’s haul could have went for about $6,300, said Chad Allison, the Chassahowitzka manager.
While Chassahowitzka just started cracking down on berry pickers, Allison said there have been several instances where people were caught picking berries, or loading them up in their trucks, since the palmetto berry season began. “It’s been pretty bad, and it may be on the rise as the price increases,” Allison said.
Palmetto berries are in season from mid-August to mid-October.
Chassahowitzka isn’t the only place where picking has become a problem. Carlson said FWC officials have been called out to Corkscrew in the past to deal with poachers. “It’s a big problem for us every year. What I would like to see happen would for the large land owners to control this … and have people come on their property like farm workers and pick,” Carlson said. “But right now, it’s just like the wild west.”
While it isn’t illegal to pick palmetto berries, Allison said people can not collect berries in a management area.
The men were all charged with second-degree misdemeanors, and each charge is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or 60 days in jail.
Connect with Naples reporter Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster at http://www.naplesnews.com/staff/jenna-buzzacco
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