State wildlife officers received a tip in July 2017 that a group of men from Alabama and Georgia were on their way to the Florida Keys to poach spiny lobsters, the sought-after crustaceans that wouldn’t be in season for another month.
By the time they were stopped, the men had wiped out a small spawning area off the Middle Keys city of Marathon, and prosecutors said their pillaging of resources affected the lobster population for years to come.
Acting Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker sentenced four of the seven men this week to 60 days in county jail, 10 years of probation and a life-time ban from fishing in Florida.
Becker called the crimes “some of the most egregious resource violations this court has ever seen.”
The men sentenced are: Francis Bartkiewicz, 59, of Eufaula, Alabama; Leon Reeves, 50, of Phenix, Alabama; Jeffrey Honnell, 47, of Phenix, Alabama; and Jeffrey Meide, 46, of Rome, Georgia. They pleaded guilty Wednesday.
Another man, David Gilmore, 57, of Eufaula, Georgia, was scheduled to make the same plea, but he had a medical issue that forced him to reschedule his trip to the Keys, said Larry Kahn, Monroe County State Attorney’s Office spokesman.
Becker sentenced Kyle Bartkiewicz, 25, and Robinson Reeves, 21, to three years of probation for their part in the illegal take.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers arrested all seven men on July 9, 2017, for taking a total of 320 lobsters off Bamboo Bank near Vaca Cut in Marathon. Of those lobsters, which were all out of season, 226 were undersized, according to arrest reports.
Lobster season begins Aug. 6 and ends March 31. Between the boat the men rented that week and their vacation home, FWC police also found four stone crab claws, which were out of season by four months, and a filleted grouper, that was undersized, Kahn said.
After receiving a tip that the men were in the Keys to illegally harvest lobster and fish, the FWC assigned four plain clothes officers on two unmarked boats to watch them.
They saw the men go in and out of the water with pole spears. The next day, the officers stopped the boat and found 137 wrung lobster tails on the boat -- 117 were undersized -- as well as the stone crab claws and filleted fish, Kahn said.
Officers on land raided their rental house and found 183 lobster, 109 of which were too small, Kahn said.
FWC Inspector Adam Garrison testified during the trial that in his opinion, the operation was pre-planned and “incredibly obvious it was not their first time doing this.”
The prosecutor on the case, Assistant State Attorney Kelly Dugan said, “They killed everything they could.”
Garrison added that “there was no marine life left” on Bamboo Bank after the men raided it.