John L. Yates has been fishing since he was a toddler, though he wasn’t hauling in grouper as a 3-year-old.
About 15 years ago, when the furniture maker that he worked for closed its Plant City operation, Yates looked at his options. He could relocate or he could get into a dramatically different line of work.
Yates, who lives in Holmes Beach with wife Sandy, pursued the dramatically different course. He became a commercial fisherman, a profession in a shrinking field, like that of the independent, small farmer.
Yates, who looks more like a fisherman than an Ethan Allen customer service rep, set out 15 years ago as a deck hand on a long-line job. Then, as now, he shipped out from Cortez, one of the few working fishing villages that remain in Florida.
Not long after he started in commercial fishing, Yates, 59, went to work independently, selling his catch to local fish houses, such as A.P. Bell in the village.
“I love my work,” he said during a recent interview at the Star Fish Restaurant in Cortez.
Yates had just returned from a job and was preparing to department on another in a week.
His shore leave was not a vacation. During that period, Yates and his wife worked on a likely appeal of a federal conviction that could send the fisherman to prison or result in a hefty fine.
In August, a federal jury in Fort Myers convicted John Yates on one charge of disposing of evidence to prevent seizure and one charge of destroying evidence to impede or obstruct a federal investigation. The jury did not convict Yates on a third count, lying to a federal agent.
He expects to appeal, and is making the argument that the government agencies involved made mistakes out at sea, on the shore and in the courtroom.
Numerous agencies are involved in the case — the FWC, the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard.
In August, the government touted the conviction.
“Protecting our environment and natural resources should be of prime concern to all Americans,” said U.S. Attorney Robert E. O’Neill. “Our office will continue to make the enforcement of environmental laws a priority.”
NOAA special agent Tracy Dunn said the agency “takes acts of destroying evidence to impede an investigation very seriously and will take appropriate measures to bring violators before the criminal courts.”
Now John and Sandy Yates are eager to comment, and preparing what could be likened to a citizens’ indictment of NOAA.
“NOAA is harassing fishermen. Gloucester has been dealing with this for 10 years,” Sandy Yates said, referring to the Massachusetts commercial fishing community. There, Democratic U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and U.S. Sen. John Kerry have raised concerns about aggressive, unfair and poorly-managed NOAA law enforcement operations.
Frank has testified in Congress that NOAA places unnecessary and disproportionate financial penalties on the fishing industry.
“It is clear that the approach has been unduly adversarial,” the congressman said. “Treating fishermen as if they were criminal in every case is clearly wrong — and there has been an excess of that.”
Locally, John Yates said he might be among the first commercial fishermen to face criminal charges “but probably not the last.”
When Yates heads out on a job, he is planning on a two-week fishing trip, generally to catch grouper. The destination is Gulf of Mexico water at least 120 feet deep — maybe south to Key West, maybe north toward Pensacola.
“I’ve probably caught a million pounds of grouper over the years,” he said.
One day on the Gulf four years ago, Yates said an officer with Florida Fish and Wildlife boarded the boat he was captaining for an inspection.
“We were running long-line gear,” Yates recalled.
The inspection, during which time the officer measured the entire catch, lasted about four hours.
Yates said it’s important to note that the inspection occurred “in the heat of August” during the hottest period of the day, because fish shrink in the heat, as well as on ice.
The officer wrote Yates a citation for 72 grouper that weren’t the minimum length, but the fish were not seized at sea.
“They searched but they chose not to seize,” Yates said.
Yates denies the government assertion that he took short fish and alleges that the FWC measured the grouper incorrectly. “I do challenge the way they measured the fish,” he said.
When he returned to Cortez, Yates said there was more trouble, with NOAA, FWC and Coast Guard involved.
Authorities again measured his catch, counting 69 short fish.
Later, the government would allege that Yates or a member of his small crew disposed of three other short fish, but also implied that Yates had replaced the 72 short fish measured at sea with 69 new short fish measured on the dock.
Still, with a citation and the government sale of the fish, Yates thought the matter was closed.
“Under the Magnuson-Stevens (Fishery Conservation and Management) Act, you measure the fish to the best of your ability,” Yates said. “Short fish. You get a fine. It’s a civil matter. So when I got the citation, I thought it was all over with.”
But in May 2010, federal officers were dispatched to Yates’ home and to Cortez to arrest him. He had been indicted and was going to trial in a federal court in Fort Myers.
“We didn’t even know there was a criminal investigation,” Sandy Yates said.
While awaiting trial, Yates did not fish for months.
And now he isn’t captaining a boat.
He and Sandy also say they are coping with Islanders who’ve read about the conviction and upcoming sentencing hearing.
“All the fishermen I work with, they know what this is about,” Yates said. “But not everybody on the Island understands.”
Yates is set to be sentenced Nov. 14. According to the Justice Department, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
“I’ve been boarded and never had a short fish,” he said. “Someone could go rob a bank and get less time than I’m facing for three fish.”