WEST PALM BEACH — A Jupiter diving crew cspanme spancross miles of unsupervised fishing line during an outing in 2020, 19 sharks ensnared in its hooks. In a decision that could earn them up to five years in prison, they pulled the line aboard and cut the sharks loose.
Jurors convicted Palm Beach County residents John Moore Jr., 56, and Tanner Mansell, 29, of theft Friday after deliberating for three days. In addition to potential prison time, Moore and Mansell may be fined up to $250,000 and ordered to pay restitution to the Fort Pierce fisherman from whom prosecutors accused them of stealing.
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Moore, of West Palm Beach, and Mansell, of Jupiter, had taken six tourists to snorkel and scuba dive with sharks when the two men spotted the fishing gear left unattended in the water during a trip on Aug. 10, 2020.
It was a bottom longline fishery set, which federal prosecutors said can extend for miles along the ocean floor and have anywhere from 100 to 1,000 baited hooks. A fisherman permitted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct research had left it there to harvest sandbar sharks.
The set was marked with a buoy containing the vessel name from which it had come. Despite what prosecutors called the “obvious legality” of the fishing operation, Moore and Mansell told their passengers that it was an illegal and abandoned “ghost set” and subsequently enlisted the tourists to help scoop it aboard.
Divers stumbled across a rare NOAA-sanctioned shark fishing operation
According to Delisse Ortiz, who helps issue NOAA’s Shark Research Fishery permits, legal operations like the one Moore and Mansell stumbled across are rare. Only about five Shark Research Fishery permits are issued each year.
The incident occurred in federal waters about three miles offshore, where the federal government has jurisdiction over laws, regulations and fishery management.
It took more than three hours to collect 3 miles of the fishing line and to release everything caught on the hooks. The tourists aboard the ship took photos and videos of the process, images that would later be used against Moore and Mansell in court.
Halfway through retrieving the fishing gear, Moore called state law enforcement officers to report what he said he believed was an illegal shark fishing operation. It had entangled lemon sharks, he said, so he cut them free. Prosecutors said he didn’t mention that the line was attached to a properly marked buoy, as is required by federal law.
Moore repeated the story to an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who questioned him in the Jupiter Inlet. Photos taken by the officer indicated that the buoy, which was present in the tourists’ photos and would have proven the gear’s legality, was gone.
The gear didn’t look abandoned, prosecutor Thomas Austin Watts-Fitzgerald argued. The officer noted that it had fresh bait on the hooks and was free of rust, and he told Moore to leave it on the dock for the officer to collect later as evidence.
Instead, Watts-Fitzgerald said Moore scavenged the line for the hooks and weights and allowed others on the dock to take the rest of the hardware before it was loaded into a cart and placed in a dumpster. A nearby video-surveillance camera recorded the ordeal.
The incident:Jupiter shspanrk divers cut commercispanl shspanrk fisher’s longline, which is illegspanl in Floridspan
The gear alone cost the vessel owner about $1,300, Watts-Fitzgerald said during the two-day trial, and the value of the lost sharks amounted to several thousand more. Tourists aboard Moore and Mansell’s boat testified that the men believed they were doing the right thing by confiscating the fishing gear and releasing the sharks snagged by its hooks.
“A legitimate concern for wildlife should never result in people facing felony charges,” wrote one of the divers’ supporters, who helped fundraise about $28,000 for Moore and Mansell through a GoFundMe page launched in August. A GoFundMe page in support of the Fort Pierce fisherman whose equipment was destroyed helped raise about $4,500.
Jurors struggled on whether to find dive team guilty, prompting letter from judge
The jury’s ultimate conviction appeared to come after much back and forth in the deliberation room. They mulled over the evidence for three days, at times asking federal judge Donald Middlebrooks for help.
“Not unanimous. Cannot get there. How should we proceed?” wrote the jury foreman in a note to the judge.
Continue deliberating, Middlebrooks wrote back. Could he define the word “mistake”? the foreman asked. No, Middlebrooks responded. After another note in which the foreman said the jury was “still very divided,” Middlebrooks issued a formal letter imploring them to press on anyway.
“This is an important case,” he wrote in a two-page letter. “There is no reason to believe that the case could ever be submitted to twelve people more conscientious, more impartial, or more competent to decide it – or that more or clearer evidence could be produced.”
Finally, and to the defense attorneys’ dismay, the jurors agreed: Moore and Mansell had intended to steal the fishing gear. Middlebrooks is scheduled to sentence the pair at 11:30 a.m. Feb. 9.