Two get federal time for illegally taking Florida Keys marine life

Selling live rock taken from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters sent two marine-life dealers to federal prison Tuesday.

Broward County residents Robert V. Kelton, 60, from Hollywood and Bruce Brande, 59, of Cooper City were sentenced Tuesday in Key West by U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez.

Kelton, founder and president of D.R. Imports of Miami, will serve two years in prison followed by three years of supervised release. Brande, the company's general manager, was given a year in prison and a year of probation.

Both men were booked into the Miami Federal Detention Center on counts of conspiracy to take protected species from the Keys sanctuary and filing fraudulent records.

Facing possible sentences of five to 10 years, Kelton and Brande pleaded guilty in January after their November arrests.

"The defendants conspired with different marine-life collectors located in the Florida Keys to purchase quantities of live rock with marine life attached to it, such as Ricordea florida," says a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami. "Live rock is an essential building block of the reef system of the Florida Keys."

To conceal the origin of the Keys live rock with a wholesale value near $15,000, Kelton and Brande filed bogus paperwork declaring it was imported from Haiti.

Live rock, prized by saltwater aquarium owners, is fossilized coral-reef rock that has been covered by colorful coralline algae. Live rock improves the appearance of the aquarium while providing biological benefits.

"The ricordia is a very colorful item, and it's hardy and easy to keep," Brande told in a 2009 story. "The rock is the base of the whole aquarium."

The only live rock that can be legally harvested from the Keys is cultured in approved underwater nurseries maintained by licensed marine-life professionals.

Kelton's attorney asked the judge for a lesser sentence, citing harm to the defendant's family and Kelton's "severe obesity" that creates "medical and hygienic needs."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald prosecuted the case, uncovered by federal marine agents during "the long-term investigation into the illegal harvesting and sale of marine life resources from the Florida Keys known as Operation Rock Bottom."

That investigation began in 2011 when state and federal officers raided Key Marine Inc., a fish-collecting business on Grassy Key, now closed.

Court records in later cases show agents used Key Marine and its operators to compile evidence on other businesses seeking to buy or ship live sharks, rays and other tropical life illegally taken from Keys waters. 

Federal agents attached transponder tags to some of the Keys live rock to track the D.R. Imports shipment.

License revoked

In a separate Operation Rock Bottom case, a Weeki Wachee marine-life collector was stripped of his commercial licenses as part of his penalty for illegal live-rock sales.

Curtis W. Waters, 58, was sentenced March 13 in Key West federal court to three months of home confinement and three years of probation.

In September 2013, Waters shipped 150 pieces of live rock, taken when he trailered his 16-foot boat to the Keys. Agents were monitoring the $600 sale to a Colorado buyer.

"Further evidence in the case established ... Waters illegally sold approximately 2,600 of the ricordea to a number of out-of-state buyers," according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission canceled all Waters' fishing permits and blocked him from selling "the valuable 'Marine Life Dive' endorsement he held during the period of the criminal conduct," federal prosecutors said.