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 Michael W. Kimbler, 44, and Michael Bland, 31, both of Big Coppitt Key in the Florida Keys, were sentenced today in federal District Court in Miami for conspiring to illegally harvest spiny lobsters from artificial habitat placed in the FKNMS.
Kimbler and Bland were sentenced by Senior U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King, who had earlier accepted their guilty pleas to the criminal charge. Michael Kimbler was sentenced to serve a term of imprisonment of 9 months, followed by a one year term of supervised release, and the Court confirmed an Order of Forfeiture of a vessel used by Kimbler in the criminal conduct. Bland, who had cooperated in the investigation of the case, was sentenced to a one year term of probation, with the special condition that he serve six months of home confinement. Bland also was ordered to forfeit a vessel used in the offense, which was valued in Court at $40,000. The defendants were each also ordered to cooperate with the Internal Revenue Service in the ascertainment, assessment, and collection of taxes due and owing as a result of the criminal activity. The defendants had surrendered the navigation equipment and location data for all the artificial habitat sites in the Sanctuary. Additionally, each was required to 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 argument at sentencing, 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 already removed, under the supervision of NOAA Special Agents, artificial structures at more than 200 sites, 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. 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 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.
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.
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.