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The Federal Government Is Making Fishermen Pay For On-Board Babysitters

REUTERS/Grant Lee Neuenburg

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Fishermen have had a tough go of it against the federal government in the last year.

The U.S. District Court in New Hampshire dismissed a lawsuit brought by David Goethel and a coalition of New England fishermen against the Department of Commerce, challenging a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rule requiring fishermen to pay the costs of on-board, at-sea monitoring by third party workers to ensure compliance with other federal regulations.

Plaintiffs were represented by the Cause of Action Institute, a public interest law firm.

“While we respect the District Court and its decision, it appears that decision is contrary to the law and facts,” said Alfred J. Lechner, Jr., President and CEO of Cause of Action Institute and a former federal judge Friday. “In the end, the federal government is overextending its regulatory power and is destroying an industry. We intend to study the decision and consider further action.”

The federal government has previously financed the cost of at-sea monitors — approximately $710 per day. It passed the cost onto fishermen last year, claiming it could no longer fund the project. The government later revised its position, saying it could cover 85 percent of expenses. Fishermen would be required to absorb the cost of the program in fiscal year 2017.

“Fishing is my passion and it’s how I’ve made a living, but right now, I’m extremely fearful that I won’t be able to do what I love and provide for my family if I’m forced to pay out of pocket for at-sea monitors,” Goethel said when the suit was filed in December.

Other fishermen have struggled in federal courts in recent years. Federal prosecutors charged Florida fisherman John Yates with violations of the Sarbanes Oxley Act, a corporate auditing statute passed in the aftermath of the Enron scandals, for the illegal destruction of undersized red grouper fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Yates threw the fish overboard after a federal agent discovered he had caught them in violation of federal conservation laws.

Prosecutors alleged this violated a provision of Sarbanes-Oxley that states any person who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” could face up to 20 years in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually heard the case in 2015, finding in favor of Yates.

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan argued the destruction of the fish constituted the destruction of a “tangible object” within the meaning of the act, and cited Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.”

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