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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,
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.)

Friday, March 06, 2009

Is Technology Failing Us? The Sinking of the Patriot!

If the purpose of technology is to make our lives simpler and easier and as a direct consequence spur society to a better state of being, then I have to question the some of these innovations and the government that spawned the legislation to support them. Not only are our lives more complicated and difficult, we have a stagnating society, and some would even say devolving.

Computers have gotten faster, smaller and much more powerful. As a result, Web pages are so crowded and busy with video and other ads they crash all but the most robust browsers. Every other month new software has to be downloaded in order to keep up with the changes at Yahoo, Google, CNN, etc. And with each new software update comes a spate of anti-spy ware, anti-malicious ware, anti-spam ware and anti-virus ware. Of course, what it means to you is that your two year old computer is fast becoming a useless digital dinosaur and soon it will be time to head to Staples or Best Buy and plunk down another $1,500 for a faster, more capable machine.

But that's only half the rub.

When the 406 mHz EPIRBs came out to replace the VHF Channel 16 and 121 mHz EPIRBs, I was one of the few who rang a bell of caution. My complaint was that VHF FM and 121 mHz AM distress signals were 100% immediate, and 406 mHz signals were not. With the two former, the call went out, and if a boat (monitoring VHF Channel 16) or a plane (monitoring the emergency 121 mHz aircraft frequency) was in the area, it was going to pick up the MAYDAY instantly. With 406 mHz EPIRBs, the signal goes to the satellite, then to the ground station, then to the Coast Guard, where it is processed, identified, verified, and finally, acted on. Don't get me wrong, the older EPIRBs had their problems: crank MAYDAYs, no locating beacon, false positives, interference, and the biggest one – nobody in range to hear the call. But. . . .

Eliminating the older EPIRBs forced a level of technology on inshore mariners that in effect reduced their window of opportunity. By how much? Who can really say? All we can say for certain is that two 406 mHz EPIRB-equipped boats, not also equipped with VPIRBs and DSC VHFs, even if they’re only a few miles away, might have to wait to hear a PAN-PAN from the Coast Guard before responding to each other. This wait can be as much as an hour, and maybe even longer.

Enter the VMS (Vessel Monitoring System) and AIS (Automated Identification System), two further advances in marine technology that have in effect made life more complicated and more difficult, the first for commercial fishermen, the second for all mariners.

A case in point:

According to a report in the Boston Herald on January 9th of this year, the Coast Guard took 2-plus hours to respond to an emergency on board the Patriot, a 54' ground-fish dragger that was in serious trouble about 18 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. Apparently, a remote fire alarm went to the home of the boat’s owner/operator. The owner's wife notified the local Fire Department and/or the Coast Guard of the alarm, but the S&R response got hung-up in the pipe.

To date the bodies of the two crewmen have been found and the sunken vessel located and photographed underwater by an R.O.V. There is still no clue as to what caused the tragedy, or if the Coast Guard was too slow in responding or if it could have helped at all. An investigation is ongoing. However, it has been suggested that the delay was due to an attempt by the Coast Guard to verify the nature of the emergency using VMS and AIS data.

If this is what took place the morning the Patriot sank, it illustrates what can happen when technology and government regulation work in concert to alter the course of normal human interaction. When somebody calls for help, the first response from our government agencies shouldn't be: "Let's check the computers."


Where Have I been?

A long time has passed since I last posted to this blog. While I wish I could say the reason is that I have been busy as a beaver on a tree farm, the truth is I'm just worn out by all that has happened in the news. Let's face it, this has not been the best of times. The economy is in shambles. The world stage is a horror show. And future prospects look bleak.

If we had confidence in our leaders to make the right choices, brighter days would surely follow. Unfortunately, the governments of today are run by ideologues instead of managers. Everybody has a grand plan for the future. They're all trying to get their names in the history book, get into heaven, or change the world. Why can't anyone be satisfied with steering the ship in a straight line and keeping it off the rocks?

So, I'm frustrated. In part because all my commercial charters have dried up, in part because my savings has dwindled to practically nothing, in part because commercial operators like myself are left to face the current hardships head on while others in the industry get special financial assistance, and in part because I don't see things getting better.

One of the problems we face is that our new government is doing all it can to re-institute a level of growth and prosperity it has told us for months is wrong for the country and the planet. I don't get it. If it was the wrong direction for the country and the world a year ago, why do we want to have it all come back? Is it simply that our legislators are worried about their own portfolios? Because we all know there are too many houses, and too many condos, and too many boats and ships, and too many cars and trucks, and too many freaking people buying shit they don't use and then throwing it away and turning the whole planet into a garbage dump. Prosperity and security should not have to be a consequence of wasteful production and spending and gross exploitation of resource. Growth does not need to come at such a high cost. Nor does it need a government hell bent on rewarding loss and celebrating mediocrity.

A new direction should mean INNOVATION!!!!!!!!!! CLEAN, RESPONSIBLE INNOVATION!!!! It means looking at the way we manufacture things, the way we move things, and they way we communicate, and CHANGING THESE THINGS FROM THE FOUNDATION UP!!!

You want real change. Here are some ideas:

1. Get rid of every brochure, catalog, newspaper and magazine in places where there is both TV and Internet. Why do we need all of it? It's wasteful and redundant. Pick one form of media and ban the other. "This is a paper-free zone." Or, "This is a broadcast-free zone." Better yet: "This is a media-free zone." Besides, look at all the newspapers and magazines going out of business. WHat does that tell us?

2. The news media around the world is broken. Fix it! There should be a law prohibiting opinions and commentary in the news. People need straight, hard facts, not biased, partisan reports and propaganda. Leave the commentary for other media outlets and different types of shows. As Sgt. Friday says: "Just the facts."

3. Stop building new roads and bridges. We have enough freakin' roads. Besides, the way things are going, there won't be anybody left who can afford to drive on them.

4. You want health care? Here's a tip: Let people die when they get old. Stop trying to scrape every single second out of life. When your time is up it is up. You know what terminal cancer is? It's God's way of telling you your time is up. Sorry to be so cold-hearted, but do you know how much money is spent trying to squeak a few more moments of life into somebody? It's absolutely ridiculous, as well as being morally and ethically questionable.

5. Put an end to clone research. There's only one place for this research to take us: Organ banks that keep the very wealthiest members of the human race alive indefinitely. This research is morally, ethically and socially wasteful. Go back and read number 4.

6. Build bigger atom smashers and fund more inner space and particle research. The future of mankind is dependent on radically new concepts in physics, not clone research, wind energy, or a cure for cancer. Speaking of which, let's understand one thing: THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS CLEAN ENERGY! No matter what we do, whether it's take energy from the wind, the tides, or geothermal, none of it comes for free. Take enough of it out of the planet and we will pay an environmental price. We just don't know what it is yet. If you really think anything comes free, especially energy, you are living in the proverbial fantasy world. Instead of trying to harness the good (tides, heat from the earth, prevailing winds), we should be trying to take the sting out of the harmful phenomenon, i.e., tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and lightening. We get twice the bang for our buck harnessing destructive energy. Hurricane Katrina alone destroyed 300 million trees, not to mention all the human-related damage.

7. Legalize drugs. Put an end to the cartels and the terror networks that fund their campaigns with drug money. Reserve our penal system for anti-social criminal elements, not self-medicating hedonists.

8. Fix our legal system. Put an end to ridiculous malpractice, libel and personal injury lawsuits, limit professional compensation, and get settlements under control.

9. Fix our government. Our legislators are not above the law when it comes to their taxes or indiscretions. In the past, they were kicked out of office. Some even went to jail. Now they don't even lose their jobs.

10. Put our kids in school at 1 year of age. Stop treating them like babies and teach them languages and math and exercise them. Make them laugh and show them how to enjoy a life of learning. By the time they're 6 years old they'll be multi lingual, math smart and on their way to greatness. Nobody will complain about everyone in the country being English-speaking-only because we'll all be adept at three or four languages. Furthermore, math is the universal language. Some day we'll meet creatures from other planets. When this day comes, we'll have to be a lot smarter than we are now.

OK, that's enough of a morning rant for now.