John Yates, right, and friend, Luther Sasser, commercial fishermen, at Star Fish Company next to the dock at A.P. Bell Fish House in Cortez, talk about the case that has led Yates from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to a federal courtroom.
John L. Yates, 60, a Holmes Beach commercial fisherman working out of Cortez, was released from jail Jan. 4.
Yates served 30 days following a federal jury trial, judgment and sentencing on charges that he destroyed fish in an effort to obstruct an investigation into what the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration claimed were under-sized red grouper on Yates’ boat.
He was convicted on two of three counts in August, four years after a government agent boarded his boat to search for illegal fish. Yates was found guilty of one count of disposing under-sized fish to prevent the government’s seizure, and a second count of destroying fish to obstruct an investigation of under-sized red grouper.
The jury acquitted him on a third count of lying to a federal agent.
Even now, after serving the sentence, Yates believes his case is not close to over. His attorney filed a notice to appeal Dec. 16, and the appeal is expected to last another two years.
Asked why Yates is appealing, there’s a simple answer, “Because I didn’t do it.”
“We’ve lost three years of income. He’s lost his slot of captain on a boat,” said his wife, Sandy Yates.
“He’s had to do odd jobs, jump on crab boats (to crew). Not to mention the mental stress.
“Every time he’d get pulled over, he’d have to pull out a card,” she said, adding a federal conviction stays with someone for life.
“It was just nasty,” John Yates said of time in jail in Lee and Charlotte counties.
“I’ve got three more years on paper,” he added, referring to his three years of supervised release. During his probation period, he is required to cooperate with DNA collection, drug testing, financial information requests and other conditions of supervision.
“I can’t leave the middle district of Florida,” he added.
John and Sandy Yates also said people are afraid to get involved with him due to the serious nature of a federal case.
“(The government has) taken our income, vacation and time with our grandkids,” said Sandy Yates, adding she is planning a civil suit against the government if they win the appeal.
In a recent interview near the docks he’s fished from in Cortez for more than 13 years before the 2007 citation, John Yates noted the irony of being found innocent of lying to a federal agent about the alleged disposal of fish, but being found guilty on the underlying issues of disposing and destroying fish.
He estimated he was carrying about 3,000 grouper the day the agent of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, deputized by NOAA, boarded his boat and ordered him to empty his catch onto the deck of the boat.
Four hours into the agent’s search and measurements on a rocky sea, John Yates said the agent had him pull out 72 fish and put them on ice, however, the agent did not take those fish that day.
A day later, government agents met Yates at A.P.. Bell Fish House in Cortez, where they counted and measured the selected fish again, only to find 69 shrunken fish, he Yates said.
Three days later, according to the Yates, the citation was issued after the two of the crew were interviewed.
Sandy Yates said one crew member told investigators “the captain made me throw the fish overboard. The crew member came out of the interview, saying, ‘They told me I was going to jail. I can’t go to jail.’”
“I just think there were always 69 (select fish),” she said. “Measuring is not the same offshore as onshore.
“John told them, ‘you’re smashing the faces of the fishes’ during NOAA’s onshore measurement.” Sandy Yates said she’s certain it was her husband’s questioning of the agents that led to government’s charges.
John Yates said, the mouth of a grouper has an under-bite, and should be measured at full length, not by smashing the face against a board.
“We challenged their methodology — how they measured the fish,” said John Yates.
After the trial, the U.S. attorney’s office of the Middle District of Florida published a press release, touting the government’s case.
“According to testimony and evidence presented at trial, deputized officers of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service boarded the fishing vessel, Miss Katie, in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico and discovered 72 under-sized red grouper.
“The officers instructed the captain, John L. Yates, to leave the fish onboard the Miss Katie, and report back to Cortez, in order for agents of the National Marine Fisheries Service to seize the fish. Instead of reporting as instructed, Yates caused his crew to throw the fish overboard.
“Protecting our environment and natural resources should be of prime concern to all Americans,” said U.S. Attorney Robert O’Neill in the press release. “Our office will continue to make the enforcement of environmental laws a priority.”
Less than one year after issuing Yates’ citation, which alleged fish under the 20-inch minimum length, the law was changed to allow 18-inch fish, according to John Yates.
Also, Sandy Yates pointed out, the fish seized after the onshore measurement were eventually sold to consumers by the federal government.
What has them “fired up” now, she said, is the “little guys” in commercial fishing across the country who are facing similar charges and being unfairly prosecuted as criminals.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and U.S. Sen. John Kerry have raised concerns about over aggressive and poorly managed commercial fishing enforcement operations in Gloucester, Mass.
Under the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Sandy Yates said, “If you come up short, it’s supposed to be a civil matter. So when he got the citation, he thought, ‘pay a fine and it was over.’”
Going on more than five years in the federal court system, however, John Yates apparently does not regret his decisions in this matter, including his decision not to plea bargain with the U.S. attorney. He said the prosecution offered only one choice other than going to trial on the indictment, to plead to the charge of “forcibly and physically opposing a federal officer.”
“What is that?” John Yates said.
His wife added the government expected him to “plead out” because 95 percent of those charged do.
However, no admission was made.
“If you didn’t do something they’re saying you did, what would you do?” John Yates asked.
“We’ve had to forfeit hundreds of thousands of dollars in income for a minor infraction,” said Sandy Yates. “There should be a point where common sense takes over. We’re talking about three missing fish.”