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Casitas in Florida Keys Sanctuary Endanger Lobsters and Their Habitat

More than 2,000 casitasartificial habitat for lobstershave been removed from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as a result of investigations by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. 

This illustration by U.S. Fish and Wildlife shows the “casita curtain,” with colored dots representing the GPS coordinates of illegal artificial lobster habitats discovered by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement in a 2008 investigation of a highly organized illegal dive industry. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Exactly 41 16-pound zippered storage bags filled with lobster tails were inventoried in a cooperating source’s freezer by NOAA special agents in a 2008 investigation dubbed Operation Freezer Burn. Total retail value of the frozen tails, which were harvested pre-season, was $85,428.


Exactly 1,197 whole lobster were seized by NOAA special agents in a sting on a highly organized illegal dive industry on opening day of Florida’s commercial lobster season in August 2008. 


Casitas that have been removed from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as a result of investigations by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement pile up in a trash-bin. 

  

July 30, 2012

Casita—Spanish for “little house”—sounds like a nice, cozy shelter, that when placed in the seagrass beds of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, would be the perfect home for the spiny lobster (absent the picket fence). But this artificial habitat makes easy pickings for poachers to harvest thousands of lobsters a day, and it’s destroying the seagrass beds and hardbottom communities that lobsters, fish, and other marine life need to survive.

NOAA law enforcers have removed more than 2,000 of these illegal structures. While the actual number of illegal casitas is unknown, there are reliable estimates that as many as 20,000 have been placed throughout the Sanctuary and adjacent waters.

“A lobster likes to have a cave around it because it can’t see behind it,” Special Agent John O’Malley explained. “Predatory fish can’t get under there, so lobsters are well protected. But they are concentrated, too, so a diver can easily harvest a large quantity at one spot.”

What started as dumping old bath tubs and car hoods into the Sanctuary evolved into placing sophisticated commercial steel shelters for divers to illegally harvest several hundred lobsters at once. Although licensed recreational divers can harvest up to six lobsters per day and licensed commercial divers up to 250 per day, poachers had been harvesting up to 1,500 lobsters per day from casitas.

“They made a casita curtain that runs up and down the back side of the Keys,” Special Agent Kenny Blackburn said. “Nobody knew the magnitude of it because it was all in 30 feet of water in the back country, 2 or 3 miles off shore, where it’s always cloudy, and you can’t see the sea floor.”

The Habitat—Seagrass at Risk

In addition to concentrating lobsters and enabling the overharvesting of lobster, the casitas, averaging 25 square feet, also destroy the natural habitat—productive seagrass beds or hardbottom habitat. Seagrasses provide many benefits, including unique habitat for aquatic life, playing a major role in the reproductive cycles of many recreationally and commercially important species. They also help improve water clarity, protect shorelines from erosion, filter polluted runoff, absorb nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and produce oxygen for fish and wildlife.

Dumping trash into the water to create casitas violates Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary regulations, which prohibit discharging or depositing materials into the waters of the Sanctuary without a permit. It’s also against state law, and Florida further made it illegal to harvest lobster off artificial habitat starting in 2004.

"Enforcement of casitas has been a top management priority for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for a number of years," said Sean Morton, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary superintendent. "The illegal dumping of artificial habitat and poaching of lobster undermines existing fisheries management efforts, cheats honest fishers, and destroys the very habitat which supports this important commercial species."

The Sting—Catching Lobster Poachers

Blackburn and O’Malley launched an investigation into a highly organized illegal dive industry harvesting lobsters from casitas in the Sanctuary. The sting netted six defendants who were directly involved in the harvest of 922 whole lobsters as part of a conspiracy that illegally took 1,197 lobster on the opening day of Florida’s commercial lobster season in August 2008. The defendants also had stockpiled some 1,700 pounds of wrung lobster tail harvested during the closed season, which they froze and intended to sell after opening day.

Each was charged with harvesting spiny lobster within the Sanctuary from illegally installed artificial habitat and in violation of applicable bag limits for commercial sale under the federal Lacey Act, all in violation of the federal conspiracy statute. The defendants received various sentences including prison time, probation, and fishing prohibitions. The judge also ordered the ring leader to sell two of his residences to meet a $1.1 million civil penalty assessment, which will cover removing 800 casitas from the Sanctuary, and to forfeit three offshore vehicles and three vehicles used in commission of the crimes.

Blackburn and O’Malley’s initial investigation in 2008 resulted in five spin-off cases during the past four years and the removal of more than 2,000 casitas from the Sanctuary at the expense of the defendants.

The Results—Seagrass and Lobsters Make a Comeback

“We have seen quantifiable positive impacts from this case, including the reported landings of lobster have doubled,” O’Malley said. “We are getting a handle on what is actually being harvested because now we are seeing reporting done properly.”

“When statistics are better, it leads to better science, which leads to better law,” Blackburn added.

It also leads to better seasons for the commercial lobstermen operating legally. Industry losses due to trap theft and poaching amount to an estimated $7 million in the spiny lobster fishery alone in a 9-month season, according to Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

"Successful prosecution of cases made by Special Agents Blackburn and O'Malley support industry assertions of enormous resource violations, severe environmental impacts, involvement by local, organized crime rings, and extreme financial loss to the industry," said Kelly, who described the agents as “an army of two” when the association honored them at a ceremony in April.

Story provided by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement