Three Florida lobster divers pled guilty for illegal harvesting activities. Additionally, a Florida corporation pled guilty for their illegal activity related to the illegal harvesting activities.
Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Tracy Dunn, Assistant Director, 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, made the announcement.
Charles Veach, 39, of Coppitt Key, Florida, Ryan Veach, 41, formerly of Bay Point, Florida, and Tyson Veach, 36, of Stock Island, Florida, pled guilty to the offense of knowingly transporting, selling, receiving acquiring, and purchasing lobster, when in the exercise of due care they should have known the lobster was taken, possessed, transported, and intended to be sold in violation of the laws and regulations of the State of Florida. Additionally, Super Grouper, Inc., a Florida corporation with its principal place of business in Key West, Florida, pled guilty to knowingly engaging and attempting to engage in conduct that involved the sale and purchase of, offer of sale and purchase of, and intent to sell and purchase spiny lobster, with a market value in excess of $350.00, and did knowingly transport, sell, acquire and purchase said spiny lobster in interstate commerce, knowing that said spiny lobster was taken, possessed, transported, and sold in violation of and in a manner unlawful under the laws and regulations of the State of Florida, specifically, Florida Administrative Code, Sections 68B-24.006(10).
According to the Indictment filed against the defendants, a Joint Factual Statement submitted to the Court, and statements in Court, at all relevant times Charles Veach was the president and director of Super Grouper, Inc. The corporation was the registered owner of a 32’ Invincible, center-console fishing vessel, the “Super Grouper.”
In August 2006, on the eve of the opening of commercial lobstering season in Monroe County, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agents placed a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracker on the fishing vessel “Super Grouper.” The GPS device permitted enforcement officers to identify sites in the Gulf of Mexico where the vessel operated by C. Veach and R. Veach had lingered for significant periods of time over the following week in the FKNMS.
On August 10, 2009, C. Veach and R. Veach operated the vessel “Super Grouper” in the course of spiny lobster harvesting activities in the FKNMS. During that voyage, surveillance aircraft operated by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC), observed and videotaped them diving within the FKNMS. Special Agents of NOAA Office of Law Enforcement videotaped the return of the “Super Grouper” to the residence of C. Veach on Big Coppitt Key. The agents also videotaped five bins and one bag of spiny lobster being unloaded from the vessel, which C. Veach sold to a wholesale dealer in Key West according to trip tickets and receipts filed with the FWCC, as required by law, and retained by the dealer.
The August 10, 2009 sites, identified by the GPS tracker and surveillance, were later surveyed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Region 4 Dive Team. Artificial habitat, also known as “casitas,” were located at each site. Additionally, thorough search of the areas surrounding the sites revealed no natural habitat suitable for sheltering spiny lobster.
On August 19, 2014, NOAA Special Agents observed and photographed C. Veach and T. Veach departing Hurricane Hole Marina, Stock Island, on the “Super Grouper” and enter the FKNMS waters in the Gulf of Mexico. During that trip, Customs and Border Protection air assets observed, videotaped, and documented multiple locations at which T. Veach engaged in diving activities within the FKNMS. On their return, NOAA Special Agents photographed the landing of spiny lobster at a Stock Island commercial wholesale dealer. T. Veach was identified as one of the two occupants of the “Super Grouper” participating in the landing and subsequent sale of spiny lobster to the wholesale dealer.
On August 15, 2014, the vessel “Super Grouper” was observed in the FKNMS by Customs and Border Protection air assets who again videotaped multiple locations at which an individual deployed from the “Super Grouper” engaged in diving activities. Surveillance videos reflect the harvesting and presence in multiple locations on board the “Super Grouper” of spiny lobster. At the conclusion of the trip NOAA Special Agents witnessed the landing and sale of spiny lobster to a Stock Island commercial wholesale dealer. The occupants of the vessel included C. Veach. The spiny lobster harvested by the “Super Grouper” were sold in two transactions, to a wholesale dealer on Stock Island and a wholesale dealer in Key West for a total exceeding $3,000.
The 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.
Pursuant to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act and the National Marine Sanctuary Act, NOAA issued regulations in January 1997 to govern the conduct of activities within the sanctuary. Title 15, CFR Subsection 922.163(a)(3) prohibits any alteration of, or construction on, the seabed. Drilling into, dredging, or otherwise altering the seabed of the Sanctuary, or engaging in prop-dredging; or constructing, placing, or abandoning any structure, material, or other matter on the seabed of the Sanctuary is prohibited.
Pursuant to an agreement reached with the United States, the defendants agreed to jointly recommend a term of six months imprisonment, a $25,000 fine, and a one year term of supervised release, during which they will be barred from any involvement in lobster harvesting. Additionally, the defendants surrendered a list of all their illegal harvesting sites to the government, and are committed to removing all the sites at their own expense from federal and State waters under agent supervision. The defendants also agreed to forfeiture of the 2008 32” Invincible fishing vessel used in the offense, and its engines, tackle, and appurtenances as instrumentalities of the crimes, and surrender of their various crustacean and dive endorsements issued by the State of Florida.
C. Veach, R. Veach and T. Veach each face possible terms of imprisonment of up to one year. Additionally, they may be fined up to $100,000, ordered to make restitution to identifiable victims of the offenses, and be placed on supervised release for up to one year. The defendants are scheduled to be sentenced on May 5, 2015 at 2:00 p.m. at the Key West Sidney M. Aronovitz Federal Courthouse by U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King.
Mr. Ferrer commended the joint investigative efforts of the Special Agents of NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement who led the long-term investigation into the illegal harvesting and sale of spiny lobster. Mr. Ferrer also thanked Customs and Border Protection, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service Region 4 Dive Team for their investigative efforts. This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas Watts-FitzGerald and Antonio 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.