Keys Resident Sentenced for Illegal Harvest of 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 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, was sentenced today in federal District Court in Key West for illegally harvesting spiny lobsters from artificial habitat placed in the FKNMS.
U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez, who had earlier accepted Ravelo’s guilty plea to the criminal charge, sentenced Ravelo to 16 months in prison, to be followed by a one year of supervised release. In addition, the Court confirmed an Order of Forfeiture of a vessel used by Ravelo in the criminal conduct. The defendant had previously surrendered the navigation and location data for all the artificial habitat sites in the Sanctuary. Additionally, he was required to surrender his Crawfish Dive Endorsement to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission within five days of his plea. Lastly, also as part of the resolution of this case, Ravelo removed, under the supervision of NOAA Special Agents, artificial structures at more than 200 sites, using his own vessel and at his own expense, as part of the resolution of the case.
According to the charging Information, statements made in Court at the time of the plea, and argument at sentencing, Ravelo engaged in the illegal harvest of spiny lobster over a multi-year period, extending from as early as August 2007 through approximately March of 2009.
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, the defendant admitted constructing, placing and using artificial structures placed 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 statements, Ravelo 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 harvest activities to commercial lobster endorsements held by other individuals who were 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 defendant marketed his illegal catch through two licensed wholesaler dealers in Key West. Court records reflect that Ravelo’s involvement in the scheme was valued at approximately $390,000 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 for 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.