Two Florida divers who operated a “swim with the sharks” tourism business were convicted by a federal jury Dec. 6 of stealing commercial longline fishing gear, after releasing 19 sharks on the line and taking the gear.

Captain John R. Moore Jr., 56, of West Palm Beach and Tanner J. Mansell, 29, of Jupiter, Fla., ran their business from Jupiter Inlet, home port for a number of eco-tourism charter boats that take visitors to see sharks in the wild.

Moore and Mansell, both licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry passengers for hire on uninspected vessels with six passengers, took a group to swim with sharks in the federal waters off Jupiter Inlet in August 2022, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southern Florida.

The party onboard included a police chief and his family, visiting tourists from the Midwest, and two other tourists, according to the statement. After conducting a first dive, Moore and Mansell set off for a second spot and on the way encountered a large orange buoy, marking a commercial longline set.

Prosecutors said the buoy was clearly marked with the vessel name as required by federal law, and used as evidence video taken by the passengers clearly showing the markings.

Moore is a former commercial fisherman, and Mansell an underwater photographer with long experience with sharks; he worked on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week documentary series in 2021.

“Moore and Mansell told their passengers that this was an illegal, abandoned ‘ghost set’ and duped the passengers into assisting in retrieving a lengthy section of the line,” according to the prosecutors’ statement. “They released any catch on the hooks and stowed more than three miles of monofilament line, weights, gagnions, and the marker buoy on the deck of their boat.

"The passengers took videos and still photos which established that this activity extended for more than three hours and resulted in the loss of at least 19 sharks to the fishermen and vessel owner.”

The releases went on for around 90 minutes before Moore called Florida state wildlife enforcement officers “and gave an inaccurate statement of what was seen and found at the buoy site. He claimed he’d found an illegal shark fishing longline and that he observed entangled lemon sharks, leading to his efforts to cut them free,” according to prosecutors. “He never mentioned that the line was attached to a properly marked buoy. The state officer advised Moore to cease his activities pending an investigation.”

While bringing the tourists back to the dock, Mansell disembarked onto a second outbound dive boat to act as a crewman, taking with him the fishing line, prosecutors said. As Moore continued to bring his vessel and passengers into Jupiter Inlet, a state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer stopped the boat.

Prosecutors obtained a video clip of that encounter with Moore saying the gear was a shark longline set, and asserting  and it was an illegal fishing operation. The evidence also included photos and videos shot by the passengers showing the marked buoy.

“However, when the FWC officer took his own photos of the line and gear on Moore’s vessel, the buoy which would have established the obvious legality of the shark fishing effort was gone,” prosecutors said. “The officer also noted that all the gear retrieved by Moore and Mansell appeared brand new, with fresh bait on the hooks, and no rust as would be evident with abandoned fishing gear. Moore was advised to leave the gear on the dock as the officer would collect it later as evidence.”

The FWC officer told Moore to wait at the dock and secure evidence, but the captain instead “scavenged the line for the hooks, attachments, and weights and allowed others on the dock to take the rest of the hardware connected to the main line,” prosecutors said. “Moore and Mansell were present when the line was loaded into a cart and the cut-up line placed in a dumpster. The activity on the pier was captured by surveillance cameras.”

Evidence at trial set the lost gear value to the fishing vessel owners at around $1,300 and the lost sharks’ potential market value at several thousand dollars, prosecutors said. In addition to potential prison time, Moore and Mansell may be fined up to $250,000 at sentencing Feb. 9 and could be ordered to pay restitution to their victims.

Juan Antonio Gonzalez, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Manny Antonaras, Assistant Director of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement (OLE), Southeast Division, made the announcement.

This case was investigated by NOAA-OLE, Southeast Division, with assistance from FWC. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald is prosecuting the case.

 

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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