A Key West man accused of illegally harvesting thousands of pounds of lobster pleaded not guilty Friday in federal court.
Manuel Ravelo Jr. is charged with conspiring to illegally harvest marine life, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The charge against Ravelo resulted from an ongoing federal law enforcement effort targeting fishery violations.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald told U.S. Magistrate Lurana Snow that Ravelo dove on artificial lobster habitats, also known as casitas, from August 2007 to September 2008, and sold thousands of pounds of lobster worth more than $100,000 to Rusty Anchor Seafood and Holiday Seafood, according to court records.
Court records state Ravelo falsified required legal reports, called "tickets," attributing lobster he caught in excess of the daily commercial limit of 250 lobster to others who were not working with him, as well as falsifying the dates on those tickets. For example, the government alleges that Ravelo filed 28 seafood tickets in August 2007, and sold about 10,000 pounds of lobster to Rusty Anchor Seafood of Stock Island for more than $70,000.
Prosecutors also allege Ravelo filed 13 tickets in August and September 2008 for more than 35,000 pounds of lobster that was sold to Holiday Seafood of Key West for more than $44,000, according to court documents.
Snow granted Ravelo a $50,000 conditional bail Friday, meaning if he fails to appear in court he will be jailed under that bail amount. She also restricted his travel to within the U.S. Southern District of Florida, which runs roughly from Vero Beach to Key West.
She also required him to turn over his passport.
In April 2011, the Rusty Anchor agreed to pay a $500,000 fine and undergo an extensive overhaul of its environmental and business practices under the conditions of a plea agreement after a similar investigation led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in tandem with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Holiday Seafood of Key West owner Scott Greager of Stock Island, was sentenced to three months in prison in January as part of a plea agreement.
Both fish houses were accused of knowingly buying illegally acquired seafood.
Federal prosecutor Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald told Snow Friday that Ravelo has been removing casitas prior to Friday's arraignment. His next court appearance was not immediately scheduled.
Ravelo is the latest in a string of arrests made by the law enforcement arm of the NOAA dating to 2008, starting with the arrest of Cudjoe Key couple David and Denise Dreifort.
Most recently, Rush Maltz of the Saddlebunch Keys, and Titus Werner of Little Torch Key, pleaded guilty in January of conspiring to illegally harvest lobster.
They were ordered to forfeit their boats, surrender their licenses and remove about 200 man-made habitats from Florida Keys waters.
Others arrested include former Key West firefighter and fishing guide Michael Delph, Key West charter captain Robert Hammer and Sean Reyngoudt, a Summerland Key semi-pro kiteboarder. Bay Point residents John Buckheim and Nick Demauro personally removed nearly 300 casitas from Keys waters after their arrest.