By Adam Linhardt Citizen Staff
The operator of a large Miami-based marine life export business and a general manager at the same businesswere sentenced to prison Tuesday for falsifying documents to cover up delivery of live rock used in saltwater aquariums.Robert Kelton, operator of D.R. Imports, Inc., and general manager Bruce Brande were charged in a large federal investigation called “Operation Rock Bottom” into the illegal taking of live rock — worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — from Florida Keys waters.
U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez sentenced Kelton to two years in prison followed by three years supervised release and Brande to one year in prison followed by a year of supervised release. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald told Martinez that Kelton was “probably the most knowledgeable person in South Florida in this business.” Both men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act in January as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. The Lacey Act prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been gained illegally. It has been used in the past six years to prosecute numerous Keys defendants in illegal lobster casita and other commercial fishing cases. It has been the primary tool used by federal prosecutors to curb the use of casitas, which are artificial lobster habitats placed illegally in local waters. In recent years, authorities have begun making more coral and live rock-related cases.
Federal prosecutors allege both men conspired to take and sell live rock, orRicordea florida, from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, according to court records. Live rock, notto be confused with coral, is dead coral that has organisms living on and inside it. It is often used in saltwater aquariums for its cosmetic aesthetic,and also it’s used as a natural filter.
It is illegal to take live rock from the marine sanctuary, except from nursery areas with special permits. Kelton allegedly took a Wisconsin-based marine life retailer to the Florida Keys and an order was made the same day, according to records. Prosecutors allege the men conspired to sell and ship rocks on six different dates from 2008 to 2011. In June 2011, Kelton allegedly agreed to “supply a false invoice to document a nonexistent sale of Haitian-origin life rock to a cooperating individual in order to ‘cover’ a subsequent delivery of live rock illegally harvested from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary,” records state.