Monroe County Judge Dismisses 50 Counts from Illegal Lobster Harvesting Case

January 9, 2023 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements, Theft/Property Crimes

Fishing is a popular hobby in Florida, especially in the Keys. However, there are specific rules and regulations for harvesting lobster in Florida. If violated, a person can be fined, or potentially face criminal charges. A recent case in the Keys involves two men who were accused of setting up illegal lobster traps, along with other violations. One of the men has just been acquitted by a South Florida judge.

This article will provide details from the case along with information on casitas (artificial habitats) and penalties for violating the Florida Fish and Wildlife regulations.

What was the Case?

Nearly 50 counts of illegally harvesting spiny lobsters have been dismissed by a Monroe County judge. The initial charges were against two Florida Keys commercial divers—Michael Kimbler and Shane Sweeting.

According to the report, the investigation began last year by state and federal authorities. The joint operation was between the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, and NOAA Law Enforcement. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection was enlisted to conduct aerial surveillance.

After securing a warrant through a federal judge, a tracking device was placed on the vessel to monitor the pair’s movements. The arrest warrant details the extensive operation that the two fishermen were working in. Authorities were able to identify at least 54 sites in which casitas were placed in the ocean waters of the Lower Keys.

Video surveillance also showed Sweeting and another man carrying “handfuls” of rebar and PVC piping and drilling holes into it at his home. The Fish and Wildlife Service divers later went down and documented the 54 casita sights in September and October 2021. According to the report, the casitas found were made from materials from PVC piping, hurricane shutters, concrete, rebar, and double French doors.

After reviewing the investigation’s findings, authorities charged Kimbler with 51 counts of harvesting lobster within 10 yards of an artificial habitat (casitas). Sweeting was charged with 54 counts of harvesting lobster within 10 yards of an artificial habitat, 14 counts of failure to display an air identification placard, 14 counts of failure to display a water identification placard, and three counts of seafood quality control code violations.

Last week, Kimbler was acquitted by Judge Peary Fowler in the Key West courthouse. Although Kimbler had a previous conviction for using and diving on casitas in 2012, the most recent charges were dismissed because authorities could not positively identify him as the second diver.

Sweeting’s case is still pending in court, and he is facing additional charges for seafood quality control due to video surveillance police obtained from his property. In the video, Sweeting’s pet raccoon can be seen climbing into the bins of lobsters—which were later sold to local fish houses according to the documents authorities reviewed.

Florida’s Issue with Casitas

Casitas is the Spanish word for “little houses.” The artificial habitats are often made from hurricane shutters, old bathtubs, or other pieces of debris that can congregate large groups of lobster at once.

In reference to lobster harvesting, poachers had previously placed hundreds of casitas in Florida Key’s National Marine Sanctuary. This allowed poachers to exceed the legal quotas set for commercial fishermen. In addition to violating the harvesting quotas, casitas can also have an impact on the environment.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), casitas can smother ocean life such as corals, sponges, sea fans, and seagrass. The makeshift habitats can cause injury to the natural habitats that are home to lobsters, fish, and other bottom-dwellers. The casitas can also be moved or dragged during any strong currents or storms, which could cause damage to the ocean floor and its inhabitants.

In 2014, NOAA recovered nearly 940 illegal casita structures from 306 different locations along the ocean floor. The following is a statement from NOAA Marine Habitat Restoration Specialist Sean Meehan:

“Casitas kill and smother the valuable marine benthic environment that many species depend on for survival. The legal commercial and recreational harvest of lobster, which is managed for all to sustainably enjoy and pursue, is hurt by the use of casitas. The removal of these illegal casitas will continue until they are gone from the seafloor.”

On December 16, 2020, the FWC reopened discussions on the possibility of making casitas legal by citing information from other jurisdictions and the impacts that they have had on their ecosystems.

However, there had previously been talks about making the DIY traps legal over a decade ago, but due to both federal and state marine law enforcement officers making high-profile cases the commission abruptly ended discussions. These cases resulted in lengthy prison sentences for multiple Florida residents.

In 2020, the FWC board chair Rodney Barreto requested that the agency consider making casitas legal—but the request still received opposition from commercial trappers in the Keys. Options have been explored by the FWC, including a pilot project. However, the regulations on casitas remain the same.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Regulations

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are specific regulations when it comes to harvesting lobster. During the regular spiny lobster season, the daily bag limit is six per person. However, it is important to note that any person looking to harvest lobster must have a valid license.

The following is a list of regulations by the FWC:

  • The carapace (hard shell of the crustacean) must be larger than three inches measured in the water
  • Harvesting is prohibited in any protected areas or sanctuaries
  • Unless exempt, a recreational saltwater fishing license and a lobster permit are required for harvesting
  • The annual fee for a commercial spiny lobster endorsement is $125
  • Individuals cannot harvest or attempt to harvest spiny lobster using any device which will or could puncture, penetrate, or crush the exoskeleton (shell) or flesh of the spiny lobster
  • Recreational trapping is prohibited
  • Bag limits are only for properly licensed individuals and those people exempt from license requirements who are actively harvesting—regardless of the species an individual is fishing for
  • It is prohibited to exceed the bag limit or take someone else’s bag limit. Those without a proper license cannot be counted for purposes of bag limits

State Criminal Charges for Lobster Violations

Florida Statute section 379.3671 covers the Fish and Wildlife Conservation—specifically the state regulations on Spiny lobster traps and certificates. The law explains that due to the rapid growth of lobster fishing, there has been increased congestion in the waters. To attempt to solve the problem, Florida Legislature has established specific provisions, as well as penalties for any violations of the law.

Included in the law’s prohibitions are the following:

  1. An individual cannot possess or use a spiny lobster trap in or on state waters without having a licensed tag required by law. An individual cannot possess or use any gear or device to attract and enclose the taking of spiny lobsters that is not defined under the commission rule.
  2. An individual cannot possess or use spiny lobster trap tags without obtaining the necessary certificates.
  3. An individual cannot willfully take possession of or remove the contents of another harvester’s spiny lobster trap without the written consent of the trap owner. Under the law, an individual not authorized to possess another person’s harvester trap gear commits theft.

The mini-lobster season takes place in Florida during the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. The official commercial season for lobster harvesting lasts from August 6th-March 31st.

Penalties under Florida Law

Possessing Spiny Lobster out of season, or any violation of Chapter 379, can result in the following penalties:

  • First violation – Second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by no less than $100 but no more than a $500 fine, up to 60 days in jail, or both.
  • First violation with 25 or more lobsters – First-degree misdemeanor, punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. If the violation involves the taking of more than 100 lobsters, the accused may have to pay an additional $10 fine for each of the taken lobsters.
  • Second violation – First-degree misdemeanor, punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. Additional penalties include up to six months’ suspension of any fishing license.
  • Third violation – First-degree misdemeanor with the mandatory minimum sentence of six months in jail. Additional penalties include a civil penalty of $2,500 and up to six months’ suspension of any fishing license.
  • Fourth violation – If the fourth violation happens within a year of the second violation, it is considered a third-degree felony. The penalties for a third-degree felony include up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in federal prison. A person convicted would have the mandatory minimum sentence of one-year imprisonment, and up to six months’ suspension of any fishing license.

According to Monroe County State Attorney’s Office, the following acts with lobster fishing can result in criminal charges:

  • Possessing undersized lobster (less than 3 inches of carapace)
  • Harvesting an egg-bearing lobster
  • Possessing an excess of lobsters that is over the bag limit (more than 6 per person)

Any of the above violations can result in getting charged with a second-degree misdemeanor in Florida. The penalties for a second-degree misdemeanor include up to a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

One thing to note is that each of these violations can result in separate, additional charges. There are also additional penalties for taking lobsters from any protected area under the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime in Florida, the first thing you should do is speak with a legal professional. It can be intimidating to navigate the legal world, especially with the possibility of a criminal charge. Convictions in Florida can lead to expensive fines, jail time, and the possibility of losing licenses.

Don Pumphrey and his team of defense attorneys have years of experience representing clients across the Sunshine State for various charges. Our team will help build a strong defense for your case and work towards earning your freedom. Contact Pumphrey Law Firm today for a free consultation at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

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