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Feds charge Keys man with lobster poaching
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    MIAMI — A Florida Keys commercial fisherman could lose his boat and do federal prison time if convicted of charges announced Thursday that he illegally poached thousands of spiny lobsters with traps that damaged coral reefs and sea grasses in sensitive marine waters.
    U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the charges against David W. Dreifort, 41, reflected one of the largest lobster poaching operations ever prosecuted in the southeastern U.S.
    More than 6,000 lobster tails were confiscated after Dreifort was arrested earlier this week, about 1,000 times the legal bag limit for Florida’s just-completed lobster sport diving mini-season. And officials said most of them were taken from protected seabeds of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
    At up to $20 a pound, this one batch of confiscated lobster tails could have been sold to local fish houses for about $30,000. Hundreds of divers take part in the annual sport mini-season, which this year claimed the lives of four people searching for the popular crustaceans.
    ‘‘Actions like this have long-run consequences. It means divers have to dive more often and look longer to catch their legal limit,’’ Acosta said.
    The operation used traps known as ‘‘casitas’’ that can range from large slabs of concrete and metal to discarded washing machines and parts of roofs. Lobsters are attracted to the cover provided by these items. All a poacher has to do is mark the spot with a GPS device and return to scoop up the catch.
    Beyond the illegal poaching, these traps can cause dead zones among the coral and grasses that provide habitat for fish and other sea creatures.
    ‘‘Casitas have been an ongoing problem in the Keys,’’ said Dave Score, superintendent of the Keys marine sanctuary. ‘‘We’ve been seeing these for a number of years.’’
    Dreifort, of Cudjoe Key, was scheduled to appear later Thursday in federal court in Key West. A working telephone number for Dreifort could not immediately be located, and it wasn’t clear if he had hired an attorney.
    Dreifort was charged with federal environmental law violations and conspiracy, which could bring a prison sentence of up to five years each as well as fines and penalties. Prosecutors also planned to seek forfeiture of Dreifort’s fishing boat, gear and other items. It’s also possible others could be charged.
    According to a criminal complaint, federal agents were tipped that Dreifort had been harvesting lobster illegally for 20 years and had more than 1,000 pounds stored in a freezer at his home. After checking out the tip, they used GPS technology to track Dreifort’s boat in late July to allegedly collect lobsters and then used a hidden camera to record him placing lobster tails in the freezer.
    Agents then returned to the eight offshore sites Dreifort visited, finding lobster traps and remains of lobsters whose tails had been wrung from them. They took photos and video of the underwater locations.

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