TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- It’s known as “poaching,” so if you think taking over the bag limit, out-of-season lobsters, or lobsters from a sanctuary is OK, you may want to talk to the people recently penalized for doing just that.
During “Operation Freezer Burn” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) assisted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office for Law Enforcement and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the search and arrest warrants of a group illegally harvesting lobsters from artificial habitat placed in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS).
The artificial habitats, referred to as “casitas” or “condos,” are perceived by lobsters as shelter, and they congregate at the sites. This makes for easy harvesting of the crustaceans.
In the end, six people were convicted for the illegal harvest of 922 lobsters on the opening day of Florida’s commercial lobster season in August 2008. They faced additional charges after authorities found approximately 1,700 pounds of wrung lobster tail stockpiled that was harvested during the 2008 closed season and intended for sale after opening day.
“Those who respect and follow the rules want those who are exhausting and abusing the resources to pay,” said Officer Robert Dube of the FWC. “More than 1,700 pounds of lobster tails represents more than 1,000 times the legal bag limit for a mini-season sport dive. If everybody took half that many lobsters, there wouldn’t be any left.”
The six people were convicted this year in federal court, each charged with harvesting spiny lobster within the sanctuary from illegally installed artificial habitat, exceeding the bag limits, and illegally offering the lobsters for commercial sale. The convicted are David W. Dreifort, 41, and Denise D. Dreifort, 48, both of Cudjoe Key; Robert H. Hammer, 46, of Miami; Sean N. Reyngoudt, 25, of Summerland Key; John R. Niles, 50, of Labelle; and Michael Delph, 39, of Key West.
“With lobsters coming in season, we want to remind everyone, poaching of lobsters isn’t tolerated, and the penalties can be stiff,” Dube said.
One of the convicted, David Dreifort, was sentenced to imprisonment for 30 months, followed by three years of supervised release. In addition, he is prohibited from fishing for five years in many of the waters in and around South Florida. He and his wife also had to forfeit three vehicles and three boats; and the Dreiforts must sell two properties in the Florida Keys, including their residence at Cudjoe Key, which was the staging ground for the criminal conduct. The proceeds from the sales up to $1.1 million will be used to remove the illegal artificial habitats that the Drieforts placed in FKNMS and help restoration efforts for the approximately 700 sites.
The NOAA Office for Law Enforcement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service Restoration Center and the Damage Assessment and Resource Protection Office, and the FWC worked jointly throughout this investigation.
Recreational and commercial harvest seasons for spiny lobster in Florida are set to reopen soon. The special, two-day spiny lobster sport season comes first, July 29-30 this year, followed by the regular lobster season Aug. 6 - March 31.
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