Two Keys Residents Plead Guilty to Conspiracy To Illegally Harvest Spiny Lobsters
Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Otha Easley, Acting Special Agent in Charge, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, Sean Morton, Superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), and E. Matthew Bendele, Acting Resident Agent in Charge U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Miami, announced that Michael W. Kimbler, 44, and Michael Bland, 31, both of Big Coppitt Key in the Florida Keys, pled guilty today in federal District Court in Key West to conspiring to illegally harvest spiny lobsters from artificial habitat placed in the FKNMS.
Kimbler and Bland entered their guilty pleas before U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who set sentencing in the case for June 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm in Key West. The defendants each face maximum statutory sentences of up to five years in prison, to be followed by a term of supervised release and fines of up to $250,000. Plea agreements executed by the defendants also require their immediate surrender of the navigation equipment and location data for all their artificial habitat sites. Their pleas will also result in the forfeiture of two vessels, and the related tackle, equipment, and trailers, which were used by the defendants to facilitate the criminal conduct. Finally, the two defendants must surrender their Crawfish Dive Endorsements to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission within five days of their pleas.
According to the charging Information, a Joint Factual Statement filed with the Court at the time of the plea, and statements in court, the two defendants were involved in the illegal harvest of spiny lobster over a multi-year period, extending from as early as April 2007 through approximately September 2011.
FKNMS regulations implemented in 1977, at Title 15, C.F.R. §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. As part of their plea, defendants admitted constructing, placing and using artificial structures placed in the FKNMS as part of their criminal conduct. It was revealed in Court that the defendants have begun, under the supervision of NOAA personnel, to remove their artificial structures, using their own vessels and at their own expense, as part of the resolution of the case.
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.
According to the Factual Statement, Kimbler and Bland, along with other unnamed individuals, made multiple landings of lobster that exceeded the daily harvest and possession limit of 250 lobster, and concealed the excess harvest by fraudulently using a commercial dive endorsement held in the name of a third party who was not involved in the harvesting effort, and by failing to meet the requirements of Florida law regarding the reporting of all commercially harvested lobster to the State of Florida. The defendants marketed their illegal catch through a licensed wholesaler dealer in Key West. Court records reflect that Michael Kimbler’s involvement in the scheme was valued at more than $200,000 in retail value, while Michael Bland’s exceeded $70,000.
During the course of the investigation, federal agents utilizing Global Positioning System (GPS) trackers reconstructed harvesting trips conducted by the defendants. Federal agents, assisted by Metro-Dade Police Department Underwater Recovery Unit, sampled locations of interest on the tracklines and had a 100% correlation between the defendants’ dive sites and the location of artificial habitat. Additionally, the divers verified and documented the absence of any natural lobster habitat in the vicinity of the illegal structures.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary 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 there under, surrounding the Florida Keys, and extending westward to include the Tortugas islands, but excluding Dry Tortugas National Park.
Mr. Ferrer commended the investigative efforts of the NOAA Office for Law Enforcement and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. 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.