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Fisher faces sentencing, plans appeal

By Lisa Neff, Islander Reporter

Commercial fisherman John L. Yates returns to a federal courtroom in December for sentencing for destroying evidence after taking under-sized grouper.

Yates, 59, a Holmes Beach resident who fishes out of Cortez, plans to appeal the conviction after his sentencing. He’s contesting the government’s case against him and maintains he neither destroyed evidence nor took short fish.

“It’s been rough getting through this,” Yates said last week. “I don’t understand what they’re trying to do.”

In August, a federal jury in Fort Myers convicted 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.

The Justice Department touted the conviction in a press release. In the statement, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration 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.”

But Yates said government officials made mistakes when they boarded his boat to check his fish, when they investigated on shore in Cortez and when they argued their case in Fort Myers.

Agencies involved in Yates’ prosecution and arrest include the FWC, the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard.

The case dates back several years, to an August when Yates was captaining a small crew fishing for grouper. An FWC officer boarded the vessel to examine Yates’ catch.

After a lengthy inspection that involved unloading about 1,700 pounds of fish from the boat’s freezer onto the deck, he cited Yates for 72 short fish.

The officer left the catch with Yates, and another review took place in Cortez. In that inspection, officials alleged Yates had 69 short fish.

The discrepancy between the number of short fish counted at sea, 72, and the number counted on the shore, 69, would lead to the destruction of evidence charge.

But Yates denies the government assertion that he took short fish. The fisherman said there’s no incentive to take short fish because the fish house won’t buy them.

He also says the fish were improperly measured — measured in contradiction to federal law.

In March 2010, a couple years after the initial incident, Yates was indicted and arrested.

The trial took place in August.

The original sentencing date was delayed from Nov. 14 to Dec. 5.

Wife Sandy Yates said, “We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. If they can put Martha Stewart in jail for obstruction of justice, what do you think they will do to a regular Joe?”

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