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Looking Back at FishNet USA - Bureaucratic Monitoring Systems

COVID-19 INDUSTRY IMPACTS: Has COVID-19 impacted your fishing operation or seafood processing business? If so, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS/NOAA Fisheries) wants to hear from you. The agency said, “We are interested in assessing immediate and long-term needs to secure and enhance the resilience of the U.S. seafood and fisheries industries. We will continue to work with the Administration and Congress on this important, unprecedented COVID-19-driven effort.” Email your information to and visit the NOAA Fisheries COVID-19 webpage.

COVID-19 STIMULUS: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed into law by President Trump on March 27, 2020, contains $300,000 in direct economic fisheries assistance and other resources that are part of the $2.2 trillion package. Many federal, state, and local agencies, as well as congressional offices and industry associations, have set up webpages to help the fishing community navigate the wealth of information that’s out there. Here are a just few: Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and Governor Mills, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Small Business Administration (SBA), Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Frank Pallone, Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA), Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance (CCCFA), plus many others.

FISHING THROUGH COVID-19: NOAA Fisheries is temporarily waiving the requirement for vessels with Greater Atlantic Region fishing permits to carry a fishery observer or at-sea monitor through April 18, 2020 and will continue to evaluate the need for further extensions on a weekly basis. Also, recognizing that a growing number of fishermen are selling their catch directly to consumers these days, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) is reminding industry members to get the appropriate dealer permit for direct sales in order to do so. Permits can be obtained electronically through FishOnline.

KEY MEETINGS: Given the current public health pandemic, all fisheries-related meetings in the region are being conducted by webinar. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is meeting April 7-8, 2020. The New England Council is up next with an April 14-15, 2020 webinar meeting. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will hold an abbreviated version of its spring meeting May 5-6, 2020.


This is an Another Perspective column that I wrote for National Fisherman in November of 2005. It’s a great example of the adage “the more things change, the more they remain the same” (attributed to French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1848). We’re still dealing with bureaucrats with the same mindset (pressured by so-called “conservationists” with the same under-the-table motives), journalists whose “research” extends no farther than the latest press release and with the same unfamiliarity with what’s really happening out there on the water, and the same dissatisfaction on the part of fishermen with a system that’s predicated on the idea that fishing is one of the few professions whose practitioners are financially responsible for proving that they aren’t flouting the law.

Anyway, as with the “who cares about over eight million New Jersey consumers who don’t fish, these striped bass belong to a handful of fun fishermen” mindset, some situations just beg for satirization. This was on-target back then, and with the somewhat controversial NOAA/NMFS “relaxation” of the observer regulations due to the coronavirus emergency and at least one pending lawsuit, it’s still on-target today.

(And just think, when the multinational wind energy corporations have peppered our coastal waters with wind turbines 800 feet tall and the telecoms have festooned those structures with cell towers, the Feds –and whoever can get access to the cell phone data – will be in the position to determine the location of every cell phone on every vessel within range 24/7. Bye-bye VTS?)


The case for Bureaucratic Monitoring Systems (BMSs)

(in National Fisherman)


A good friend of mine is a New Jersey gillnetter. An acknowledged highliner, he’s served and continues to serve on several state and regional advisory committees, has always participated in the management process, and has never received a NOVA or been convicted of violating any federal or state fisheries regulations. He’s the kind of fisherman the managers should try to accommodate in every way possible, because he and fishermen like him are the future of the commercial fisheries and the bureaucracy that has grown up around them.

Like every prudent fisherman, he tries to maintain every permit he can. One requires that he have a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. This is so that the enforcement people will know he isn’t fishing in an area seven states away where the use of gillnets or longline gear is seasonally prohibited. The assumption is, as with all commercial fishermen, that he is de facto likely to violate the closed area/season regulations; and the burden is on him to prove he isn’t.

It’s impossible to know his VMS unit is operating correctly without an on-board computer. He doesn’t have one and his unit evidently stopped transmitting. How did he find this out? Not by a phone call from NMFS, or a casual note or email asking that he get the unit checked and repaired (remember that the closed season/area that his boat’s being monitored for is several months and hundreds of miles away). Rather, he received a registered letter that in part read “please be aware the vessel should not return to sea with gillnet, or pelagic/bottom longline gear on board the vessel without first correcting the unit’s reporting problem.” Complying would have cost him perhaps a week’s worth of fishing, but it’s apparent that the feeling in NMFS is that’s a negligible price to pay to be able to prove to The Man that you aren’t breaking any laws or ignoring any regulations.

The justification for this “guilty until proven innocent” philosophy is that harvesting public resources is a privilege, not a right, and that you should be willing to accede to any conditions that “the system” deems appropriate, no matter how onerous they are, for this privilege.

This got me thinking, and one of the things it got me thinking about was all of those bureaucrats paid from the U.S. Treasury. The Treasury would seem to meet the criteria of a “public resource,” wouldn’t it? And, accepting that people are only people, we can assume that bureaucrats are likely to lie, cheat and steal at about the same rate as fishermen.

Hence, wouldn’t it be reasonable, in order to protect us taxpayers who try to keep the Treasury filled, to make it the responsibility of bureaucrats to prove that they are performing their bureaucratic functions where, when and how they are supposed to? While I never kept any kind of tally, it sure seems that more bureaucrats every year are caught with their hands in various illicit cookie jars that are fishermen caught fishing outside the regs. And the potential cost to the public of bureaucratic shenanigans is certainly greater than the cost of any imaginable illegal fishing.

So why isn’t the wearing, or perhaps implantation if that is a practical alternative, of Bureaucrat Monitoring Systems (BMSs), required as a condition of public employment? Perhaps as ankle bracelets a la Martha Stewart, and to be worn 24/7, 364 days a year. Every government job has requirements: hours worked, number and duration of coffee and lunch breaks, number of sick and personal days, etc. With required BMSs, we would know whether a bureaucrat on “sick time” was at home, at the doctors, in a hospital or on the golf course. We would know when a bureaucrat had exceeded the permissible time in the employee lounge or out of the building for lunch. With vital signs monitoring, we would know whether a stationary bureaucrat was at the desk working, nodding off or taking a nap. A bureaucrat would be hard pressed to pass off three days spent on a beach in Bermuda as a family emergency. Were a bureaucrat anywhere but home at 3:00 am on a weeknight, there’s a good chance he or she was engaged in some illegal or immoral activity, with all but guaranteed negative effects on job performance.

And, of course, if a bureaucrat’s BMS was on the fritz, he or she would be required to remain in the office or at the work station until it was operational again. If not, how would we taxpayers know that we were getting our money’s worth?

Now all we need is a federal bureaucracy in which to implement an experimental BMS. Any suggestions?


2020 addendum - As we all know, there are a bunch of good people working for NOAA/NMFS. This isn’t an indictment of any of them. But as we saw in NOAA/NMFS’s own Boston Whaler Gate back in 2012, there are bad actors in any large-enough group of employees, be they commercial fishermen or that agency’s own enforcement personnel. Thanks to a concerted industry effort those bad actors were weeded out by the federal Department of Commerce’s Inspector General, but commercial fishermen are still being penalized for supposedly not following the rules.

Nils Stolpe

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