Four of seven men arrested in 2017 for illegally harvesting 320 lobsters and other marine life from Marathon waters over two days have been ordered to jail followed by lengthy terms of probation.
They pleaded guilty to two felonies – two counts of possessing more than 100 undersized lobsters — and 31 misdemeanors, among them possession of wrung tails on or in the water, possessing more than 25 lobsters during the closed season, spearing lobster and possessing stone crab out of season.
Francis Bartkiewicz, 59, of Eufaula, Alabama; Leon Reeves, 50, and Jeffrey Honnell, 47, both of Phenix City, Alabama; and Jeffrey Meide, 46, of Rome, Georgia, pleaded on November 6 before Acting Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker.
Judge Becker called the crimes “incomprehensible” and a “crime of violence against our precious resource.” She said they were “some of the most egregious resource violations this court has seen” in her nearly 30 years on the bench.
Judge Becker adjudicated the four guilty on one felony and withheld adjudication on the other, and guilty on all the misdemeanors.
She sentenced them to 60 days in the Monroe County Detention Center for the misdemeanors and 10 years of probation for the felonies. Another defendant, David Gilmore, 57, of Eufaula, Alabama, was scheduled to plead but that will be reset because he had a medical issue and couldn’t make it to court this week.
Bartkiewicz’s son Kyle, 25, and Reeves’ son Robinson, 21, were given three years of probation. They were adjudicated guilty of possessing lobster out of season and possessing wrung tails on or in the water. Adjudication of guilt was withheld on all other counts. Judge Becker had particularly harsh words for their fathers, saying she couldn’t “wrap my head around it” that they involved their sons in their crimes.
All six had their Florida fishing licenses revoked and are banned for life from holding Florida fishing licenses. They must pay the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission $8,348 for its investigatory costs as well as various court and prosecution fees. They are banned from Monroe County waters during their probation.
Assistant State Attorney Kelly Dugan, who represented the state, said the seven “planned this out” and worked as a “team.” “They killed everything they could” and “absolutely knew this was wrong.”
FWC Officers Alex Piekenbrock and Jefferson Carroll arrested the seven on July 9, 2017. The FWC had received a tip the men were coming to the Keys to poach lobster – and had done so in the past – and were notified when they entered the county, then surveilled them for two days using four undercover officers in two boats on the water in Marathon.
On July 8, 2017, the FWC officers surveilled the men’s rental boat – a decommissioned FWC vessel the agency had sold – and saw them go in and out of the water with pole spears but felt they didn’t have enough evidence to move in. Judge Becker rejected defense attorney Bill Heffernan’s suggestion that the FWC was to blame for not stopping the men that day.
The following day, they did move in and pulled the vessel over for an inspection. The officers saw “multiple fishing poles, spear guns and pole spears” on the boat.
The seven were asked if they had any marine resources aboard and they said no, which turned out to be false. One of the officers asked permission to board and was given the go-ahead, and he found a dive bag near the console containing 137 lobster tails (117 of them undersized), four stone crab claws and four fileted fish.
The seven had been renting a nearby house and the officers were given permission to search it for additional marine resources. Officers found 183 lobsters, 109 of which were undersized. They also found a bag of lobster shells and an undersized fileted grouper. Some of the lobsters had been harvested the day the men were arrested and some the day before.
One of the undercover FWC officers, Investigator Adam Garrison, testified “it was very obvious it was pre-planned” and “incredibly obvious it was not their first time doing this.” He said “there was no [marine] life” left where the men harvested the illegal take, at Bamboo Bank near Vaca Cut.
Meide, Gilmore, Honnell and both Reeves reportedly told Officer Piekenbrock that they knew there were seasons for spiny lobster in Florida, and Meide reportedly said he has taken lobster out of season in Monroe County in the past.
FWC lobster researcher Dr. Jack Butler testified that “we lost current and future generations” of lobsters because of the spawning potential the illegally taken lobster had.
Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, provided information saying “based on the 320 illegally harvested lobsters, 160 would have been females. Each of these females would spawn one to three times in their first year of maturity with an average clutch of 300,000 eggs per spawn in a just-legal female.”
Using a retail value of $15.50 per pound for lobster and a survival rate of two lobsters per 50,000 eggs, he estimated a retail financial loss of $89,280 from the estimated 160 female lobsters that were taken. He put the “ex-vessel value,” the price for which commercial fishermen sell their lobsters to fish houses, lost at $45,504.
Florida lobster season runs from August 6 through March 31 each year. A lobster’s tail cannot be separated (wrung) from the body while the harvester is on or in the water; lobsters must be brought back to land in whole condition. When the tail is separated from the body on land, it must be greater than 5.5 inches. Spearing lobster is illegal. The harvest limit in Monroe County is six lobsters per person per day.
Stone crab season opens October 15 each year and runs through May 15.