Two Florida shark-divers who released 19 sharks and a Goliath grouper from a longline are now each facing five-year prison sentences plus fines of up to $250,000 – after being convicted of stealing commercial fishing-gear in federal waters.
John R Moore, 56, the captain of a shark-diving charter-boat, and crew Tanner Mansell, 29, might have regarded their three-hour rescue operation in August 2020 as a good deed, but this view was not shared by the Southern District Court jury in West Palm Beach that has found them guilty of theft.
Moore and Mansell had involved their six paying guests in the shark rescue following their first dive in Jupiter Inlet – and those guests had included a police chief and his family visiting from the Midwest.
According to US Attorney’s Office prosecutors, the diving guests were “conned” into helping Moore and Mansell to “steal” the fishing-gear. Photos and video of the rescue operation taken by the guests later provided crucial evidence used in the case.
On the way to their second dive-site, Moore and Mansell were said to have observed a large orange buoy marked “Day Boat III”, and this was confirmed by the guests’ images. Day Boat III was said to have been licensed for shark-fishing in federal waters, but Moore and Mansell had told the guests that what they had found was an illegal abandoned “ghost-set” that was threatening the sharks they had come to see.
Together the divers worked to retrieve more than three miles of monofilament line, hooks, weights and the buoy, in the process releasing 19 lemon and other sharks as well as a Goliath grouper, which is protected in Florida. Lemon sharks are IUCN Red-Listed as Vulnerable, but the species is targeted by commercial and recreational fishers along the US east coast.
Captured on CCTV
After about 90 minutes Moore had called state enforcement officers to report their find, but without mentioning the marker buoy. He was told to cease activities pending an investigation but, while taking the guests back to shore, had stopped to allow Mansell to board a second outbound dive-boat, taking some of the retrieved gear with him and continuing the operation to dismantle the remaining line.
When a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission officer stopped Moore’s boat he reasserted his claim of an illegal fishing operation, and the officer noted that there was no sign of the buoy onboard – and also that the retrieved fishing-gear appeared new, with bait still on the hooks.
Moore was told to leave the gear on the dock for use as evidence, but he and Mansell were later captured on CCR removing and disposing of hooks, attachments and weights, and placing cut-up line in a skip.
The loss of the fishing-gear was estimated to have cost Day Boat III’s operator about $1,300, and its catch another “several thousand” dollars. In addition to possible prison sentences and fines, Moore and Mansell could be ordered to pay compensation for its losses.
Captain Moore is an underwater photographer, freediver and former commercial fisherman, while Mansell describes himself as a professional shark-diver and cinematographer who has worked as a director of photography for Discovery and National Geographic. Their sentencing has been set for 9 February.