PANAMA CITY, FLORIDA Local Commercial fisherman, 29 year old Thomas Zachary Breeding, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Smoak to 15 months in prison for obstruction of justice and making false statements to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In October, Breeding pleaded guilty to the charges, which related to his illegal commercial fishing in The Edges Closed Area of the Gulf of Mexico (the “Edges”). The Edges is an area of the Gulf southwest of Panama City that is closed to commercial fishing annually from January 1 to April 30. The Edges is closed to commercial fishing to protect the spawning season for gag grouper and ensure the continued viability of the grouper fishery in the Gulf.
Breeding was the captain of The Wolf commercial fishing vessel, based out of Panama City. On January 9, 2012, NOAA’s Vessel Monitoring System (“VMS”) in St. Petersburg, Florida detected The Wolf inside The Edges. NOAA immediately notified Breeding that he had unlawfully entered The Edges, warned him not to again breach the area, and reminded him of The Edges coordinates.
Just one week later, on January 17, 2012, a VMS technician again detected The Wolf inside The Edges. A Coast Guard plane immediately flew over The Wolf and confirmed that it was inside The Edges and was commercial fishing.
The Coast Guard pilot made radio contact with Breeding and advised him that he was inside The Edges. Breeding told the Coast Guard pilot that, according to his GPS system, he was outside of the restricted area. The Coast Guard pilot instructed Breeding and his crew to cease fishing and return to home port in Panama City.
The Wolf returned to Panama City the next morning, at which time Breeding falsely told authorities that he was fishing in The Edges by accident because the GPS device and plotter on The Wolf were inaccurate.
At his plea hearing, Breeding admitted that he had intentionally breached The Edges to fish commercially and that, to conceal his actions, he manually altered the GPS device to render it inaccurate by approximately three nautical miles to allow him to claim the breach was accidental.
At the sentencing hearing, NOAA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Gregg Houghaboom testified that, in addition to fishing in The Edges Closed Area on January 9, 2012, and January 17, 2012, Breeding was cited by the Coast Guard in 2005 for fishing inside the Madison-Swanson Closed Area, which is an area of the Gulf south of Panama City that is closed year-round to commercial fishing to protect the spawning of reef fish, including grouper. Breeding and the boat’s owner were fined $25,000 for this incident, but Breeding never paid his portion of the fine.
Agent Houghaboom also testified that Breeding was cited by NOAA in 2007 for commercial fishing in a longline and buoy-gear restricted area of the Gulf. He was fined $17,500 for this violation, a fine that he also never paid.