By Steve Waters
Florida poachers can be pretty creative. The problem is that after the individuals are caught, the devices they used for their illegal efforts often continue to damage marine resources. That’s why a team from NOAA Fisheries is now in the Florida Keys searching for and removing building materials from the water used in a huge lobster poaching operation.
Instead of traps, the operation used what are known as casitas, which is Spanish for little houses. Made from cinder blocks, lumber and sheets of metal, casitas have been described by NOAA marine habitat restoration specialist Sean Meehan as looking like coffee tables that are six inches high. They provide good hiding places for lobsters, which gather under the casitas.
In the Keys, casitas are generally placed in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay. Poachers know where their casitas are located, so when they need to catch a bunch of lobsters, they dive on the illegal habitats and clean them out.
According to NOAA, casitas have been used to catch as many as 1,500 lobsters in a day. The legal daily commercial catch limit is 250 lobsters.
The NOAA team, led by Meehan, hopes to remove 300 casitas from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. No lobstering of any kind is allowed in Sanctuary Preservation Areas, which makes them great places to put casitas.
The removal effort is using underwater robots and sonar surveys to locate casitas.More than 100 previously unknown casitas have been found so far. Once they are located, the casitas are removed from the water and disposed of or recycled.
Besides being used for illegal lobstering, casitas can also damage natural habitat such as corals, sea fans and sponges. When casitas are moved by storms and strong currents, they can also damage seagrass as they scrape across the bottom. According to NOAA, simply removing the casitas allows the sea floor to recover.
The project is part of a criminal case against a commercial diver who used casitas for years to poach lobsters from sanctuary waters. An estimated 1,500 casitas remain in the sanctuary.
A little over two years ago, Rush C. Maltz and Titus A. Werner were sentenced in U.S. District Court for conspiring to receive, purchase, sell and transport lobster for distribution, in violation of federal and state licensing and catch limit laws.
Maltz was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, followed by two years of supervised release, and Werner was imprisoned for one year and one day, followed by one year of supervised release. In addition, Maltz had to forfeit $62,000, which represented the proceeds of the sale of two fishing vessels owned by Maltz and his charter fishing company. Both vessels were used in the commission of the crime.
A third defendant in the case was sentenced to prison and supervised release for knowingly buying illegally caught lobsters from Maltz and Werner.
In addition, at their own expense and under NOAA’s supervision, Maltz and Werner had to remove the casitas that they put in the sanctuary.