Keys Resident Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy To Illegal Ly 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 the Law Enforcement, Sean Morton, Superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), and David Pharo, Resident Agent in Charge U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Miami, announced that Manuel Ravelo, Jr., 40, 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.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lurana S. Snow accepted Ravelo’s plea to the felony charge, and indicated that she would recommend Ravelo be formally adjudicated guilty by District Judge Jose E. Martinez, who has been assigned the case. Judge Martinez had referred the matter for hearing by Magistrate Judge Snow, and has set the case for sentencing on November 19, 2012 at 2:00 p.m. in the Sidney M. Aronovitz Federal Courthouse in Key West. Ravelo faces a maximum statutory sentence of up to five years in prison, to be followed by a term of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000. The plea agreement executed by Ravelo and accepted by the Court also required the immediate surrender of Ravelo’s navigation equipment and location data for all the artificial habitat sites. His plea will also result in the forfeiture of a 29' Sea Vee vessel, and the related engines, tackle, equipment, and trailers, which were used by the defendant to facilitate the criminal conduct. Finally, the defendant must surrender all of his Crawfish and Dive Endorsements to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission within five business days of the plea.
According to the charging Information, and statements in Court, the defendant was involved in the illegal harvest of spiny lobster from as early as August 2007 through approximately September 2008.
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 the plea, defendant admitted constructing, placing and using artificial structures in the FKNMS as part of his criminal conduct. It was revealed in Court that the defendant has, under the supervision of NOAA personnel, already removed more than 300 of the artificial lobster habitats known as “casitas” from approximately 200 different sites in the Sanctuary, using his own vessel and at his 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. 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 the Court record, Ravelo, 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 attributing some of the harvest to 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 on the actual date of harvest. Ravelo regularly split the amount harvested, reporting the take over multiple days to avoid the catch limits. The defendant marketed the illegal catch through two licensed wholesaler dealers in Key West, Rusty Anchor Seafood of Key West and Scott Greager d/b/a Holiday Seafood Key West, both previously convicted for engaging in related criminal conduct. Court records reflect that Ravelo’s involvement in the scheme was valued at more than $375,000 in retail value.
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. Ferrer commended the investigative efforts of the NOAA Office of the Law Enforcement and the Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas Watts-FitzGerald and Antonia Barnes.
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.