A Lower Keys firefighter convicted of using illegal artificial habitats called casitas to harvest lobster was sentenced in Miami on Monday to one year in jail and his codefendant, a former firefighter, was sentenced to a year of probation.
Michael Kimbler, 44, and Michael Bland, 31, both of Big Coppitt Key, pleaded guilty in March to conspiring to illegally harvest lobster. They must also forfeit their boats, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release.
Kimbler will serve a year in prison and Bland was sentenced to one year of probation with a special condition that he serve six months home confinement, according to the release.
Both admitted to sinking illegal casitas in the waters off the Lower Keys to attract lobster, which they subsequently harvested.
As part of their plea agreements, they also admitted to using another commercial fisherman's license to exceed the 250-lobster daily bag limit. Kimbler sold lobster using a license belonging to his brother, Carl, who lives in South Dakota, according to court documents. Kimbler and Bland forfeited their commercial fishing boats and agreed to remove the casitas. They also agreed to cooperate with the Internal Revenue Service, which will determine whether they paid the correct amount of income tax for the lobster they harvested.
Kimbler and Bland were convicted of violating the federal animal conservation law, called the Lacey Act, and pleaded guilty that afternoon. They faced up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King presided over the case.
Both men were commercial lobster divers. Kimbler, who owns Kimbler Diving Enterprises of Key West, has been a firefighter at Naval Air Station Key West on Boca Chica Key for 14 years.
Navy officials will conduct a review of Kimbler's arrest and conviction, and will take action after he is sentenced, said Navy spokeswoman Trice Denny.
Bland, who lives on Big Coppitt Key, had been a firefighter with Monroe County for nine years. He resigned shortly after his arrest, said county Fire Chief Jim Callahan.
The investigation of Kimbler and Bland, part of a larger, ongoing investigation, dates back to 2007. Investigators determined the divers first placed artificial habitat on June 1, 2007, and two months later the two harvested 1,116 pounds of lobster worth $7,714, court documents state. Federal prosecutor Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald estimated that Kimbler's involvement in the scheme added up to more than $200,000 in retail value of lobster, while Bland's exceeded $70,000.
Investigators and prosecutors documented multiple cases between 2007 and 2011 in which the two men dived on casitas, harvested lobster and violated spiny lobster bag limits, court records state.
Kimbler and Bland are the latest in a series of commercial divers and fishermen who have been arrested and convicted on federal charges in the past two years. The convictions come as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and other fishery managers are debating the possibility of legalizing casitas. FWC officials are reviewing recent studies and researching whether they can legally lease state bay bottom for the use of casitas.
Casita advocates argue they are more environmentally friendly than traps. Opponents contend the fishermen are sinking car hoods, old oil drums, hurricane shutters and other environmentally damaging trash to attract lobsters.