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Lawsuit says no to boat trackers

Commercial fishermen say a pricey device, aimed at finding poachers, would violate privacy.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published October 24, 2006


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photo
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Anthony Zucco, 67, who makes about $20,000 a year fishing, isn't keen on paying $3,800 to install a monitoring system, plus at least $40 a month for maintenance.

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TAMPA — The federal government wants hundreds of commercial fishermen and charter boat captains to carry expensive tracking devices so regulators can tell if they are fishing in restricted waters.

The devices, which run up to $3,800 to install, would bounce signals off satellites and pinpoint a boat’s exact location. These systems are necessary, regulators say, to protect grouper, snapper and other troubled species in the Gulf of Mexico.

Angry fishermen began fighting back Monday by filing suit in Tampa federal court, saying the devices violate their constitutional right to privacy. The Gulf Fishermen’s Association, which filed the suit, wants a judge to stop the government from carrying out the plan.

The cost of the device, plus a monthly maintenance fee of at least $40, will put many part-time fishermen out of business, the suit says.

Fishermen also worry that interlopers might intercept the satellite signals and discover their secret fishing holes.
And they resent being tracked 24 hours a day.

“How would you like to have an electronic bracelet around your neck if you never did anything wrong?’’ said association board member Brad Kenyon, who owns two commercial fishing boats as well as a boat sales company. “It’s like being a second-class citizen.’’

Kim Amendola, spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, declined to comment because the government is being sued.

In an earlier interview, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Peter Hood expressed sympathy for honest commercial fishermen and charter-boat captains but said, “there are enough bad apples out there, we had to do something.’’

For example, two research areas off the Panhandle are off-limits much of the year. Fish reproduce there in abundance.

“Every time researchers go out there, they see people fishing,’’ Hood said.

The researchers couldn’t say if the poachers were commercial fishermen, charter boat captains or one of the 9-million people who hold recreational fishing licenses in Florida, Hood acknowledged.

The tracking devices, known as vessel monitoring systems, will not only protect restricted areas, Hood said, but also alert fishing police when commercial or charter boats return to the docks. Police can meet the boats and check for undersized fish, out-of-season fish and other violations.

VMS is already required in some other U.S. fisheries, where big commercial boats can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Gulf bottom fishing, however, is a boutique industry. About 1,200 people hold commercial “reef fish’’ permits that allow them to sell the grouper, snapper and amberjack that end up in local restaurants.

A few dozen captains might earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, but hundreds of others barely eke out a living.

“I will have to tell them every time I move,’’ said Anthony Zucco. “I feel like a prisoner in my own country.’’
Zucco, 67, makes about $20,000 a year. Right now, he’s mainly catching blue crab and stone crab in state waters because he doesn’t like going out too far in his 27-foot boat.

In typical years, he also catches about $6,000 worth of grouper. That requires a federal reef fish permit. He’s not keen on paying $3,800 to install VMS and at least $40 a month for maintenance.

“I can afford it. I saved money all my life, but a lot of small boats are getting out of the business,” Zucco said.
Besides monitoring two research areas off the Panhandle and two off the Dry Tortugas, the tracking devices will alert the government when long-line boats fish in water shallower than 120 feet, which is forbidden.

Hood, the National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, said he could not estimate how many of the gulf’s 1,200 commercial and 1,500 charter boat captains have been caught fishing in illegal waters.

He did say that the agency is looking for ways to have the government reimburse fishermen for the cost of installation, which must be finished by Dec. 7.

He said the tracking data will be maintained in secure areas. Any government official who reveals a fisherman’s location probably would be fired, he said.

That did not reassure Kenyon. Rock piles and cracks in the bottom create small hot spots all over the gulf. Fishermen take decades to collect their spots and will be ruined if others discover them, he said.

“Anything that goes to a satellite and back down to earth can be intercepted,’’ Kenyon said.

- Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at (727) 893-8442 or at nohlgren@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 24, 2006, 08:34:03]


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