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Date of Issue: November 09, 2006

Fishermen sue over monitoring devices

Gulf fishermen, including some in Cortez, are suing the U.S. government to stop enforcement of a regulation requiring monitoring systems on certain boats.

At the heart of the suit is the allegation that the requirement violates constitutional rights.

St. Petersburg attorney Mike Mastry drafted the suit on behalf of the Gulf Fishermen's Association. The group represents about 40 member boats with an estimated 2-5 crewmembers on each boat.

The suit, filed Oct. 23 in Tampa, is over the National Marine Fisheries Service requirement - Amendment 18A in the Fishery Management Plan -that boats with federal Gulf reef permits install vessel monitoring systems. The systems must be left on to regularly transmit locations. Permit holders must comply with the amendment by Dec. 7 or risk losing their permits and paying fines.

The GFA suit alleges the National Marine Fisheries Service is violating federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

A spokesman for the fisheries service declined to comment on the suit.

One argument in the suit deals with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which required the fisheries service to consider the economic impact of a proposed fishing regulation before enacting the measure.

The suit alleges that the service did not consider the economic impact of the regulation - the monitoring systems and installation cost from $2,000-$4,000 and associated annual fees run about $500.

"You must consider this and they did not," Mastry said.

The fisheries service did, however, move to mitigate the economic burden of the requirement, offering in late October to reimburse fishermen for the monitoring systems.

The money - $3,095 for an approved system - would come from a federal pool created to help pay for tracking systems in other parts of the country, according to a spokeswoman with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But the offer of reimbursements didn't deter the Gulf Fishermen's Association in its push to overturn the regulation.

Mastry emphasized that Amendment 18A fails to accomplish the fisheries service's intent, which is to enhance enforcement in protected areas.

"The U.S. Coast Guard still would need to intercept the vessels," he said. "The vessel monitoring system would merely send a signal to NOAA that these vessels are in a closed area. They could be there and not fish. They made an arbitrary determination that this system regulation is going to enhance enforcement."

Another complaint pertains to the privacy rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

"The issue here is Big Brother," Mastry said. "These guys have a right to privacy, a right to not be tracked by the federal government. You can't assume someone is going to commit a crime."

The attorney compared requiring that fishermen install the monitoring device to requiring that all men wear ankle bracelets because some are sexual predators.

In Cortez, where commercial fishing is a way of life, the suit found support from the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage board.

"It's like putting them under house arrest," Allen Garner, FISH president, said of Amendment 18A.

The board briefly discussed the lawsuit during a meeting Oct. 26.

"If they are going to put them on commercial boats, they ought to put them on the sporties, too," said long-time Cortez resident Mary Fulford Green.

In the suit, the fishermen demand the judge declare the regulation a violation of federal law and the Constitution and block the government from requiring the monitoring systems.

A hearing date has not been set.