TAMPA — It is a federal crime to harass a manatee. As a charter boat captain, David Beede knows this. He knows there are special laws to protect endangered species like the heavyset fauna which lounge in the warm waters off Florida’s coastlines. He would never want to hurt one.
So as he sat Tuesday at a defense table in a Tampa federal courtroom facing possible prison time, Beede seemed perplexed as to how exactly he ended up here.
Beede, the proprietor of Shallow Point Fishing Charters, admitted that months earlier he’d used a fishing rod to touch a manatee off Weedon Island. He said he was only trying to help the animal, which had a worm or a fishing lure stuck to its back.
The act was caught on video taken from an overhead drone and soon became social media fodder. Armchair animal rights activists were outraged and called for Beede’s head.
Then came a criminal charge and a guilty plea. His voice shaking at times, the beleaguered boat captain struggled to explain himself Tuesday to U.S. District Judge Thomas Barber.
“I never imagined that this would come to this," Beede said.
But the judge, who is used to dealing with much more serious offenses, also seemed flummoxed that such a seemingly minor case could end up before him.
“Some of these criminal cases are drug conspiracy after drug conspiracy,” Barber said. “It’s interesting to me to get something a little different.”
Even the government acknowledged that Beede’s mistake was not particularly terrible.
“We understand this was not the most egregious kind of crime,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Natalie Adams. “Nor was it committed in the most egregious kind of way.”
But by touching the animal, Beede did break the law. And he had prior citations for boating in “manatee zones.”
The prosecutor did not seek jail time, but she asked for a $2,000 fine.
Defense attorney Norman Canella Sr. said even that was too much.
While not discounting the crime, the judge questioned whether a such an offense would be viewed differently if not for social media.
“If we were living in rural Montana or some place, and this was something with a buffalo, nobody would care,” he said. "I’m interested in wildlife, but I’m scared now getting anywhere near them.”
Barber ordered Beede to complete 50 hours of community service. Beede must provide proof that he has completed the work by Jan. 12, after which the judge will decide if further sanctions are appropriate.
Before announcing the sentence, the judge wanted to see the video. He stood and leaned forward at the bench as court personnel called it up on a cell phone.
The 39-second clip was posted in February to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube by See Through Canoe, a watercraft manufacturer. From the air, it shows Beede’s 26-foot boat as it drifts into the murky shallows near a dozen manatees.
Beede, wearing a red jacket, stands on the bow near four other people, stretching a rod toward one of the animals. A white object can be seen on the manatee’s back. As he rubs the rod against its skin, the startled beast dives down, creating a splash. Almost in unison, the other manatees do the same.
Afterward, the video shows Beede giving a high-five to a man standing next to him.
In court, he explained that the water was so dark, he didn’t see the other manatees and was surprised when he saw their splashes. The high-five was a reaction to that.
Barber said it looked like the boat was still under motor power.
“That’s the big no, no,” he said. “You drive over a manatee and chop them up.”
But Beede asserted the motor was off. His boat was floating beyond what’s considered a protected area for wildlife, he said. He also claimed the man who recorded the video had been following him with the drone.
A later portion showed Beede apparently trying to snag the drone with a fishing line.
“I’ll be honest, I would have done that, too,” Barber said. “I don’t want someone flying a drone while I’m trying to fish.”
Since the incident went wild on social media, Beede said people have threatened to kill him. People have also said hurtful things to his family. He’s lost more than $68,000 in gross business, he said, and he’s had to take out loans to keep it going. He had to cancel his health insurance. He has trouble sleeping, he said, and is always on guard against noises in the night.
He apologized, said he understood that manatees need special protection, but expressed dismay at all that has followed.
“I’ve never been arrested,” he said. “I have no reason to go down like this.”