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Friday, March 20, 2009

More on VMS: Fishing Boat Captains Seek Relief from Electronic Shackles



Here's a follow-up to my "Failed Technology" post below. It comes from a reader out in Morro Bay, California. Believe me, they're not alone out there. Fishermen all over the country are petitioning the government about VMS requirements.

My view on this: As I stated in the previous post, we have reached a technological saturation point at which each and every innovation is brought to market, and sometimes legislated into general use, without regard for its benefit to industry or society.
Fishing Boat Captains and Owners Seek Relief from Electronic Shackles

The vessel monitoring system, VMS, requirements implemented by the Fishing Councils (under authority of the Secretary of Commerce by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA)) require any boat even occasionally fishing in certain fisheries, such as the albacore fishery, to have a VMS tracking unit (a long range technology analogous to the ankle units for criminals under house arrest) which must be turned on at all times whether in port or at sea and whether or not fishing in the targeted fishery or fishing at all. Small and medium size family owned commercial boats are dependent on access to diverse fisheries and cannot sustain additional encumbrances such as this.

Major problems with the VMS based attempt at enforcement monitoring:

If the VMS unit breaks down, the vessel cannot be moved until some outside repair person comes and successfully repairs it. This has happened to a number of vessels.

The smaller boats cannot conveniently maintain the electric draw of the VMS on their battery when they are in port as is required by these regulations. This has been a problem where owners were, for instance, intermittently and necessarily (due to previous exclusion from various traditional fisheries) employed elsewhere and therefore absent from their boats.

'Evidence' of fishing includes such things as stopping, changing directions or slowing to three miles an hour or less. For instance, the captain might be passing through a no fishing area and change direction to head for a likely fishing area because of finally spotting a warm current on the infrared satellite images (certain fish congregate along the edges). This would make it look to the VMS like fishing is occurring in the no fishing area and could result in a $25,000 fine.

The VMS data may be being recorded, but it is poorly monitored by the monitoring service. Allegedly there are only two employees involved and they have to also maintain the receiving and computer equipment (for the West Coast, or for the whole country?). There is a need to verify this assertion, but the vessel operators feel they have reason to believe it.

If the VMS breaks down, or loses contact with the satellites at while at sea, a red light comes on, and the vessel is required by law to return to port immediately and wait there until repair may be arranged. Even small boats use enormous amounts of fuel and no one, owner included, gets paid for all this time and lost fishing. This has happened to numerous vessels, many of which remain under a threat of $25,000 fines, because, in many cases, due to weather, etc. (maybe even financial desperation) it was not practical to return directly to port.

This last difficulty may be financially devastating, even when not involving a fine, whether a vessel has to stop fishing, after finally finding some fish, or whether it simply has to return to port (often several hundred miles) and be stranded there waiting for this police device to be repaired. Times are hard and some vessels have to borrow money for fuel just to get out to sea to fish in the first place. These devices are expected to soon extend to all commercial fishing boats in all fisheries, including charter boats as well as long liners, etc.

The fear about being put out of business by enormous fines has many fishermen and women afraid to oppose or otherwise offend the Councils or associated agencies, because they may have their VMS records searched for something to be used in reprisal. Under the MSA, the Fishing Councils are supposed to protect the human fishing community, not terrorize it.

Therefore concerned community members starting at Morro Bay, CA but hoping to get signatures from fishers throughout the Coastal US have created a petition to be sent to the government officials listed in it. It seeks to:

Discontinue this particular (apparently chaotic and unmanageable) program in favor of existing, less technologically impractical options,
OR
Make the enforcement agencies completely responsible for the cost and for the maintenance of the units at the reasonable convenience of the operation of the vessels (with no more returning directly to port, or being trapped in port).


If you wish to circulate this petition in your area, please download it in MS Word (also OpenOffice Writer compatible) format by clicking the link below. When you have collected your local signatures, please mail it and the signatures to the Morro Bay address at the top and it will be combined with other copies and sent on to the named officials in Washington DC.

You may wish to make extra copies of page 3 for additional signatures. Lets try to get these back to Dr.Mac by the end of March or before mid April 2009.

(Download the petition at the bottom of this page.)

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