A Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council member and commercial fishing boat owner defended his crew members who were convicted last week for taking fish from one of the most protected areas in the Lower Keys.
"They absolutely will remain the subcontractors on my boat," said Martin Fisher, the chairman of two advisory panels with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council -- the Reef Fish Advisory Panel and the Coastal Migratory Pelagics panel. "They're positions are no way in jeopardy."
As part of a plea agreement, the captain of Fisher's vessel the Sundancer, James Michael-Milas Redden, 43, and his mate, James Evan Mooneyham, 48, were both adjudicated guilty on Jan. 6 of fishing in a sanctuary preservation area, and possession or harvesting of fish in a protected area, said Monroe County Assistant State Attorney Anna Hubicki.
County Judge Peary Fowler sentenced both men each to 30 days in county jail and ordered them to pay $1,000 in fines that will go to wildlife conservation funds. Both will also serve 12 months probation upon their release.
The $5,000 that came from the sale of the 1,556 pounds of mostly red grouper, assorted other groupers and snapper confiscated from the Sundancer will go to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Hubicki said.
The Sundancer is a 38-foot boat homeported in Tarpon Springs.
Both charges are second-degree misdemeanors, each punishable by a maximum of up to 60 days in jail and $500 in fines.
The men were fishing in a no-take, protected area just north of the Dry Tortugas National Park.
"They were basically fishing in a zoo," Hubicki said.
Fisher told The Citizen on Tuesday that neither man on his boat had any intention of breaking any laws, and that Capt. Redden was "100 percent certain they were in a legal area."
Fisher added that he didn't know where the men were headed to fish on Oct. 16 when they were stopped by FWC officers aboard the 57-foot, high-speed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-owned catamaran Peter Gladding, which patrols the waters off the Lower Keys.
Fisher didn't inquire specifically where the men would be fishing before they left because Redden has been a law-abiding fisherman in the past, he said.
"Had I known, why would I risk political fallout?" Fisher asked. "It makes absolutely no common sense. First, I didn't know -- and they didn't know -- they would be in a closed zone, and second, it's not in his (Redden's) character. He's a good fisherman and always has been. He doesn't need to cheat."
Redden has been running the Sundancer for 11 years and has never had any previous fishery infraction, Fisher said.
In fact, Fisher and Redden have long taken FWC scientists out to do research aboard the Sundancer, Fisher said.
"He (Redden) would never put that relationship he has with the FWC scientists in jeopardy -- not knowingly," Fisher said.
The FWC law enforcement arm released a press release in October stating: "One of the reasons for this poaching venture is that they thought no one would be monitoring the federal Vessel Monitoring System due to the government shutdown. The two fishermen made no attempts to hide what they were doing as they had to think no one was watching."
The Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) is a real-time, satellite-based system used to monitor the movement and fishing activities of commercial fishing vessels. Satellite tracking equipment has been mandatory on commercial reef fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico since 2005.
"He (Redden) would have turned off the VMS, but he went directly there and fished there and didn't try to hide," Fisher said. "He thought he was in an open zone." Fisher said of the FWC release: "That's a total inference on the part of FWC law enforcement. Neither said anything of the sort."
Part of the problem is that fishermen are continually confused by fishery rules and that the Gulf Council's own handbook outlining no-take areas needs to be updated, Fisher said. In fact, he said he's currently working on updating the handbook to protect fishermen against future incidents.
"The point of the matter is that it's so confusing that even the (Gulf Council's) own handbook had incorrect information," pertaining to specific no-take area locations, Fisher said.
Who makes the rules?
The Gulf Council is one of four separate bodies that governs Florida Keys fisheries, the others being the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the FWC and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.
Not all of those agencies have consistent rules, and consistency in rule marking has become a sore point in the Keys as well as South Florida. To address those inconsistencies, federal fishery managers are considering coming regulations specific to South Florida.
Redden and Mooneyham were fishing in a part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary called the Tortugas North Ecological Reserve, which, as its name implies, lies just to the north of Dry Tortugas National Park.
The South Ecological Reserve, on the other hand, includes the area known as Riley's Hump. Neither man was in that area, according to reports. Both and the north and south no-take areas are known collectively as the Tortugas Ecological Reserve.
Why it's no-take
A NOAA research report released in February 2013 found that the no-take zone in the Dry Tortugas benefited the fish and did not cause the economic hardship on fishermen that was initially expected when the area was set aside in 2001 following a nearly yearlong series of workshops seeking public input. The reserve area collectively is 151 square nautical miles.
Fishermen feared the closing of the area, which is a known snapper and grouper spawning area, would have a negative economic impact on commercial fishing in the Keys. The report shows that fishermen were not economically impacted by the closure.
The report, "An Integrated Biogeographic Assessment of Reef Fish Populations and Fisheries in Dry Tortugas: Effects of No-Take Reserves," is the first study designed to evaluate how the Tortugas Ecological Reserve impacts the living marine resources of the region and the people whose livelihoods are connected to them.
Researchers looked at the log books of commercial and for-hire sportfishermen for five years before and five years after the area was set aside.
Once the reserve was closed, fishermen were able to find other viable fishing spots in the Dry Tortugas, the study states.