On Friday, the United States District Court in New Hampshire dismissed a lawsuit filed by New England fishermen accusing the federal government of overreach. The suit pertains to recent rules set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which force fisherman to absorb the cost of on-board, at-sea monitors whose job is to ensure compliance with federal regulations.
Previously, the government has paid for these third-party observers, who accompany fishermen on trips and — in addition to making certain vessels adhere to catch quotas — are there as part of a NOAA program to monitor the overall health of fish populations.
But NOAA says its federal funding has run out and that the New England fishermen themselves must now foot the bill, which amounts to about $710 per voyage. And that’s a cost, according to Cause of Action — the government watchdog group that filed the legal action on behalf of the fishermen — that the industry simply cannot afford.
“It is unlawful for NOAA to force struggling fishermen to pay for their own at-sea monitors,” Alfred Lechner, Cause of Action’s president and CEO, recently told Fox News. “The significant cost of these regulations should be the responsibility of the government.”
The “struggling fishermen” who brought the lawsuit target groundfish such as cod and halibut. Those species’ numbers have been sharply declining in recent years, which has in turn prompted NOAA to enact increasingly tighter restrictions on catch quotas.
But many feel government intervention is only exacerbating the problem. The Salem News remarked in June that “The program is far from perfect. The regulations are at worst byzantine and contradictory, and at best merely confusing. The quality and experience of observers varies greatly, and extra people on the deck of a fishing vessel can add to safety concerns in what is already a dangerous profession.”
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What’s more, NOAA readily acknowledges — via the agency’s own 2015 report — shifting the cost of at-sea monitors onto local fisherman will shutter nearly 60 percent of the groundfish industry in New England.
“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,” David Goethel, the lead plaintiff, said when the suit was filed in December of last year. “I’m doing this not only to protect myself, but to stand up for others out there like me whose livelihoods are in serious jeopardy.”
Some argue that what’s happening in the Northeast is a typical case of Big Government versus the little guy. A 2014 article in Newsweek pointed out that New Englanders feel “the regulations will disproportionately hurt small, independent fishermen as opposed to larger corporations.”
This perceived bias — government regulating small business out of existence in favor of corporate operations — makes the situation all the more unjust for the fishermen, considering they feel NOAA has no right to govern their affairs in the first place.
The failed lawsuit alleged the government was “acting in excess of any statutory authority granted by Congress” and that it was “improperly infringing on Congress’ exclusive taxation authority.”
It further states that, under NOAA’s new rules, fishermen “will be driven out of business altogether due to the large portion of their income that derives from the groundfish industry, and will be unable to recover their losses because of the Federal government’s sovereign immunity.”
Despite the ruling against the fishermen, Cause of Action president Alfred Lechner says he hasn’t thrown in the towel just yet.
“While we respect the District Court and its decision,” he said in a press release, “it appears that decision is contrary to the law and facts. 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.”
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