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February 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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NOAA Charges Florida Dive Boats with Illegal Spearfishing

from the February, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The sinking of the U.S.S. Oriskany brought more business to dive shops in Pensacola, FL, but it also enticed a few to bend federal rules and run illegal spearfishing charters to the aircraft carrier and other Florida Panhandle dive spots. After a year of complaints, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ran a sting operation, with undercover agents posing as gung-ho divers with spears, to find the culprits. In December, it charged Jeff Folds of Southern Offshore Adventures and David Mucci of Blue Water Adventures with running illegal spearfishing charters without appropriate permits in federal waters.

Allan Coker, a special agent working with NOAAs law enforcement division, told Undercurrent the tip-offs started in summer 2007. Last summer, he placed undercover agents on board Folds boat Daisy D. and Muccis boat Y-Knot, then shadowed them with an undercover boat. I called them as a diver asking for opportunities to go spearfishing in federal waters and they gave me prices, so it was obvious that they were doing this.

Besides operating with a federal charter, Folds was charged with illegal use of an explosive-charge device to take reef fish, and making a false statement to law enforcement officials. NOAA is fining him $19,000 while Muccis one charge got him a $12,500 penalty. Were getting attorneys and fighting this, Folds says. This makes us sound like a bunch of outlaws. You must have a reef permit for spearfishing in federal waters, but I dont advertise or do those charters. I charter to the Oriskany and if a passenger has a spear gun and asks to use it, I let him because theres no fish there to spear anyway.

Folds and Mucci believe the charges are a conspiracy brought against them by a rival dive shop. Apparently, the two main dive shops in Pensacola, Dive Pros and Maximum Bottom Time, have a rivalry. Were affiliated with Dive Pros, while MBT never had any of their dive boats boarded or was charged, even with evidence that they also had spearfishers on board. Adds Mucci, Out of all the six-pack operators on the Gulf Coast -- and I know for a fact there are at least a dozen without the proper licenses Jeff and I were the only ones who were fined. I find that highly suspicious.

Coker denies theres a conspiracy. We never set foot in either one of those dive shops until after the investigation began, but we received more than one complaint about them and we were absolutely positive these two boats were doing illegal activities. He doesnt believe its rampant, though. Theres a lot more boat activity since the Oriskany was sunk, but I dont think illegal spearfishing is widespread.

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