CORTEZ -- John Yates remembers the day his life as a commercial fisherman was forever changed.
The 62-year-old sat inside his Cortez furnishing store Off the Hook on Wednesday and recalled that day in October 2007.
As he shared his story, Yates' wife Sandy -- who has a background in law -- and their daughter Jennifer Miller were more than 900 miles away in Washington, D.C. for his case in front of the United States Supreme Court.
Yates, Captain of the Miss Katie, and two crew members were longline fishing for grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. An officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) boarded the vessel for a "safety inspection," Yates said. The officer then measured the grouper catch on board.
"He started jumping in the fish boxes and he throwed 3,000 pounds of fish out of the box and started measuring them and I told him he was measuring them wrong 'cause he was smashing the lips and he told me not to worry about what he was doing, to go back to do what I was doing," Yates said.
The officer testified that he recorded 72 undersized grouper. The minimum length permitted by law is 20 inches long. According to Yates, he was issued a ticket for the undersized fish.
He thought that was the end of it.
Yates was instructed to hold onto the fish so they could be confiscated
once he arrived to shore. Four days later, the same FWC officer counted 69 fish that were too small and suspected that the undersized fish he looked at in port were not the same ones he measured when he first boarded Miss Katie. One of Yates' crew members later testified that Yates had ordered the undersized fish to be tossed overboard and replaced.
Yates maintains that's not true.
"They actually said I throwed 72 fish overboard and caught 69 more illegal fish to replace them with -- which is about the most stupidest thing I've ever heard of in my life," he said. "If the fish is short, it's short."
He said he wasn't sure how the number of undersized fish went from 72 to 69. He suspects foul play on behalf of the FWC officer. One of the crew members, Yates also said, wrote in a statement that he threw away a few fish because they had yellow gills.
Prosecutors charged Yates under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which was enacted as a reaction to several financial crimes, including the Enron accounting scandal when documents were shredded to conceal wrongdoing. One of the law's provisions prohibits the destruction of "any record, document, or tangible object" with the intent to obstruct an investigation.
A federal jury convicted Yates of disposing of the undersized fish and destroying fish to obstruct a federal investigation. He served 30 days in jail.
Last year, the former commercial fisherman opened Off the Hook, 12408 Cortez Road, with his wife.
Since the 2007 incident, he said he's been struggling to get by financially.
A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is expected by the end of June. Yates said the way Wednesday's oral arguments sounded, there's a good possibility it might be in his favor. Still, he said he has no idea.
"Who knows? There's nine of them," he said. "It could be 5-4, it could be 9-0, it could be split... who knows?"
-- This report contains material from The Associated Press. Mark Young, urban reporter, contributed to this report.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.