The slew of convictions that followed federal investigations into the illegal use of artificial lobster habitats and sale of marine wildlife in Monroe County over the last six years was intended to send a message to the Keys community, the top prosecutor in South Florida said this week.
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida Wifredo Ferrer was in Key West Wednesday to discuss federal law enforcement presence in the Keys at a luncheon hosted by Monroe County State Attorney Catherine Vogel.
Ferrer discussed his wider vision for law enforcement for South Florida as well as the Keys, but after the luncheon talked more about Keys-specific issues during a telephone interview.
"The spiny lobster issues and violations involving destruction of habitat and taking of wildlife is a top priority for us," Ferrer said of the myriad cases flowing out of the Keys. "We've poured a lot of our resources into this."
Ferrer's office has the only standalone environmental task force outside of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C. The task force is led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald, the prosecutor who has been at the helm of every major environmental-related federal conviction in recent memory.
The investigations were dubbed "Operation Freezer Burn," "Operation Frost Bight" and "Operation Rock Bottom" and have led to multiple convictions, some 17 to date alone in the "Rock Bottom" case targeting the illegal sale of coral and other protected marine wildlife.
"Operation Rock Bottom" remains ongoing.
Watts-Fitzgerald told a federal judge in one court hearing that there is a "casita curtain" along the northern backcountry waters just off the Keys. In curbing their use and by forcing those convicted of removing them at a substaintial cost, he said the government is dropping an enforcement gauntlet.
Recently, marine salvors contracted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began removing casitas that were once placed and used by commercial lobster diver David Dreifort, who pleaded guilty to poaching charges in 2009 and served about two years in prison.
Dreifort had nearly 700 illegal casitas in waters between Big Pine Key and Key West, according to his plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
Crews are removing casitas from roughly 300 sites, according Sean Meehan, NOAA marine habitat restoration specialist who is overseeing the operation. More than half of the 300 sites have multiple casitas.
The removal, which will cost roughly $566,000, is being funded with revenue from the sale of two of Dreifort's homes in the Florida Keys.
Officials from NOAA have put a $1.2 million price tag on Dreifort's casita case. That figure includes estimates of the environmental damage, and the cost of removing the casitas.
Dreifort's arrest in 2008 at his Cudjoe Key home sparked a litnay of casita cases that led to the arrest of more than a dozen others -- from fish house operators and seafood purveyors to charter fishing guides.
Prosecutors reached a deal with Dreifort in which he would sell the two homes and the proceeds would be used to cover removal costs, Meehan said.
Legal proceedings in many of those cases have often drawn full courtrooms of supporters for defendants, who have included well-known charter fishermen, particularly in the Lower Keys.
Popular but controversial
Casita use is controversial and has pitted trap fishermen against casita divers, in which both sides argue their method is less destructive to the seagrass, coral and the environment in general.
For good or ill, casita use has remained a popular lobster-harvesting method in the Keys and spurred spirited debate among fishermen and scientists.
Most of the defendants sentenced for casita use were found guilty or pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act, which makes it a federal offense to import, export, transport, sell or purchase in interstate commerce any wildlife protected at the state level.
The once little-known law has been widely used in the Keys. Most defendants have been charged with conspiracy to violate the law, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
It should be noted, however, that no one has been punished under those maximums in recent memory.
At sentencing, Watts-Fitzgerald generally asks the judge to force the defendant to forfeit their boat (or boats) and fishing gear, as well as limit or revoke their state fishing licenses -- an often crippling sentence for those who make their living on the water.
Ferrer was asked what he would say to an angry crowd of native Key Westers who gathered in a courtroom to support a friend or family member who had been arrested for casita use.
"I would say our first mission is to enforce federal law," Ferrer said, "and federal law prohibits certain activities that damage and overexploits our beautiful natural resources. I would say that it is not our job to disrupt legitimate businesses, only to make sure the rules and laws are followed. That's really our job, and that's an important job -- to protect our resources. The rule of law is what matters in any area."
Whether the convictions is curbing casita use remains to be seen, but Ferrer believes they have.
"I think the success of these cases is sending a message to the community to be mindful of our laws, and I think they are having deterrent effect in that illegal activity is not being repeated.
"I think the message here for everyone to understand is that we are putting resources in the area to make sure the Keys, the beautiful Keys, are protected from destruction and overexploitation that hurts everyone," said Ferrer. "These cases are sending the message that not only is this activity wrong, we will pursue them to the fullest extent of the law."