6,000 lobster tails found atpoacher's home in Florida Keys

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Posted by on August 11, 2008 at 10:50:04:

Federal officials have arrested a commercial fisherman believed to be the largest lobster poacher in the Florida Keys after finding 6,000 lobster tails in freezers at the man's million-dollar home on Cudjoe Key.

David Dreifort, 41, was arrested Wednesday, the opening day of lobster season, and charged with harvesting about 140 pounds of spiny lobsters - a small portion of those found - out of season. He reportedly lured them to cinder-block habitats he created in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

"Man, everybody's talking about it," said Jeff Cramer, a commercial fisherman and member of the sanctuary's advisory board. "There's a lot of pretty happy people down here today."

The undercover investigation began July 22, when a tip led officers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to a home in the lower Florida Keys.

There they found a large freezer filled with 41 large plastic bags, each filled with 16 pounds of lobster tails. The estimated worth, at $15 to $20 a pound, was at least $9,800.

Robert Hammer, who said he had worked for Dreifort, admitted to the officers that he and Dreifort had harvested about 1,000 pounds of lobster tails out of season and had stored them in freezers under Dreifort's home.

Hammer told officers that Dreifort is "the largest lobster poacher in the Florida Keys" and uses "thousands" of illegal lobster habitats that he placed in the water during the past 20 years.

At 5:30 p.m. on July 28, the officers tracked Dreifort leaving a boat ramp. For five hours the officers followed Dreifort through the waters of the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, using GPS to record the sites where Dreifort stopped.

Back on land, they followed Dreifort to the same home in the lower Keys, where a surveillance camera caught Dreifort adding nine bags of lobster tails to the 41 that officers counted before. The next day the officers visited the GPS coordinates where Dreifort had stopped the night before. They found artificial habitats, some with recently wrung lobster shells.

"This is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, lobster poaching case," said Dave Score, superintendent of the marine sanctuary. Poaching has been an "ongoing problem for a number of years and we have made that known to law enforcement," Score said.

Dreifort is a licensed commercial lobster fisherman with dive and trap endorsements. However, lobster poachers disregard the legal lobster season, take far more lobsters than allowed and litter the sea beds and reefs with artificial lobster habitats they make with used car parts, cinder blocks and rebar.

"What's out there is garbage, and we've been spending a lot of tax dollars to find and remove it and then go back out the next year and there is more in the same location," Score said. "These people are cheating."

News of Dreifort's arrest spread quickly through the Keys.

"He is very familiar to the community," said Anne Morkin, director of the Great White Heron refuge. "When I have talked to other people, they weren't at all surprised."

Cramer, also the vice president of the Organized Fishermen of Florida, said he did not know Dreifort, but that law-abiding fishermen have been complaining for years to law enforcement officials about the poachers.

"These guys are a bunch of pirates and they keep getting worse," Cramer said. "We complain and they cut our buoy lines." As for the poachers' illegal lobster "condos," Cramer said, "they've got it down to a science."

Catching poachers isn't easy.

"They use fast boats. They drop off divers at night and use GPS coordinates," said Bruce Popham, chairman of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

"I think this is going to get the message out very strongly: We catch you at it and you're going to jail."

Dreifort was freed Thursday after posting $1 million bond - far more than the $150,000 that Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald requested. A telephone call to Dreifort's home was not returned. He faces up to five years in prison, thousands of dollars in fines and forfeiture of his boats, vehicles and equipment. His next court date is Sept. 2.

As for the frozen evidence, it was sold at auction, said David Weinstein, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. The amount raised was not available Thursday.

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