TWO KEYS RESIDENTS SENTENCED ON CONSPIRACY TO ILLEGALLY HARVEST SPINY LOBSTERS
Jeffrey H. Sloman, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Hal Robbins, Special Agent in Charge, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, Southeast Division, Eddie McKissick, Resident Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), and Sean Morton, Superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), announced that defendants John Buckheim, 23, and Nick Demauro, 24, of Baypoint in the Florida Keys, were sentenced yesterday in federal District Court in Key West for having conspired to illegally harvest spiny lobsters from artificial habitat placed in the FKNMS and various federal wildlife refuges. Their convictions arose from an anti-poaching investigation, called Operation Frost Bite.
Buckheim and Demauro were each sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King to prison terms of a year and a day, to be followed by two years of supervised release. The Court also ordered the defendants to make a payment of $10,559.58 to the United States Marshall’s Service, representing costs to secure and deploy previously seized assets for use in dive support operations in the FKNMS and elsewhere, identifying, documenting, and investigating illegal activities associated with the use of artificial habitat sites and other wildlife resource violations. Additionally, the defendants were ordered to make a payment in the amount of $12,187.30 to the Miami-Dade Police Department Intergovernmental Bureau, representing the costs for personnel, equipment, and travel for dive operations in the FKNMS that identified and documented the illegal artificial habitat sites employed by the defendants.
Defendant Buckheim was also ordered to forfeit a 1999 Pathfinder vessel and a 2006 GMC pick-up truck, which were used in the commission of the criminal offenses charged. Due to an intervening sale of the vessel, Buckheim was ordered to forfeit the proceeds of that sale, $1,000.00.
Judge King also ordered the defendants, at the request of the government, to continue to remove the artificial habitat they had placed in the FKNMS. Since October 2009, as part of their plea agreements, the defendants at their own expense have been removing the illegal habitat under the supervision of FKNMS personnel. Thus far, approximately 300 sites have been removed.
According to the Indictment, Court records, and statements at the sentencing hearing, the two defendants were involved in the illegal harvest of more than 8,500 pounds of spiny lobster over six months, beginning in the early summer of 2008.
FKNMS regulations implemented in 1977, at Title 15, CFR §922.163(a)(3), prohibit any alterations of, or construction on the seabed of the Sanctuary. Constructing, placing, or abandoning any structure, material, or other matter on the seabed is prohibited as part of the effort to preserve the marine environment. Defendants admitted constructing, placing and using more than 500 of the artificial structures, and that defendant Buckheim sunk a vessel in October 2008 as part of their effort to place artificial habitat in the FKNMS.
Florida Administrative Code, Section 68B-24.006, which in part addresses gear that may be employed in harvesting lobster, and “Prohibited Devices,” states “ No person shall harvest any spiny lobster from artificial habitat.” The regulation defines artificial habitat as “any material placed in the waters of the state that is reasonably suited to providing cover and habitat for spiny lobster. Such material may be constructed of, but is not limited to, wood, metal, fiberglass, concrete, or plastic, or any combination thereof, and may be fabricated for this specific purpose or for some other purpose....” Other regulations in Chapter 68B prohibit any person from commercially harvesting, attempting to harvest, or having in their possession, regardless of where taken, any spiny lobster during the closed season. The sanctioned commercial season runs from August 6 through March 31 of the following year. An exception exists for the annual lobster sport mini-season.
According to Court records, the defendants made more than 32 trips to illegally harvest lobster by diving on artificial habitat. The defendants received payments made by check to Buckheim of more than $45,000 from a Key West fish house for the illegally harvested spiny lobster. The illegal lobster, including frozen lobster tails harvested in advance of the legal season, had a retail value exceeding $155,000. To reduce the risk of detection, the defendants acquired and displayed a commercial dive placard on Buckheim’s vessel during the legitimate dive season although they were not entitled to use the commercial dive endorsement under Florida law. The defendants acquired the placard by paying $4,000 to another individual who legitimately held the required licenses. However, a false “lease” agreement was filed with State authorities to conceal the illegal scheme.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) is a 2,800 square nautical mile area that surrounds the entire archipelago of the Florida Keys and includes the productive waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. The FKNMS encompasses coastal and oceanic waters, and the submerged lands thereunder, surrounding the Florida Keys, and extending westward to include the Tortugas islands, but excluding Dry Tortugas National Park.
Mr. Sloman commended the coordinated investigative efforts of the NOAA Office for Law Enforcement, the FWS, Office of Law Enforcement, and the technical assistance of the crew of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission vessel Peter Gladding, a United States Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter aircrew, the FWS Southeast Regional Dive Team, and the Miami-Dade Police Department Underwater Recovery Unit for their assistance in this matter. This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald.
A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls. Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.