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Who Is Watching Us Fish?

Uncle Sam has his eyes on you.

It’s hasn’t been widely publicized, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently began electronic tracking of charter and headboat captains fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Among the questions this action raises is: Might tracking be next for our boating and fishing customers?

Currently, the charter/headboat monitoring systems are required only in the Gulf of Mexico. But operators fear they’re giving up their fishing secrets to the government and are warning boaters they could be next.

The rule is called the For-Hire Electronic Reporting Amendment, which states in part:

Prior to departing for any trip, the owner or operator of a vessel issued a charter vessel/headboat permit for Gulf reef fish or Gulf CMP is required to declare (hail out) the type of trip (e.g., for-hire or other trip). When departing on a for-hire trip they must include the expected return time and landing location. Reports would include information about catch and effort during the trip.

The amendment would also require that federally permitted for-hire vessels possess a global positioning system (GPS) attached to the vessel that is capable, at a minimum, of archiving GPS locations.

The charter boat captains in Southwest Florida, joined by others from around the Gulf, filed a class-action lawsuit last summer against NOAA claiming an “intrusive rule.” A federal judge even certified the class action, meaning about 1,700 individuals would be represented. Arguing that the mandatory electronic monitoring rule is unconstitutional, the captains contended their civil rights were being violated.

However, the court ruled against the captains and failed to even acknowledge the privacy arguments.

An original plaintiff in the suit was Capt. Allen Walburn. He operates five boats as A&B Charters out of Naples, Fla. He pointed out that the existing cellphone-based reporting system that was in use basically provided the same information but cost the captains nothing. The cost of the new required units, as well as monthly service fees, fall on each boat.

It's worth noting the government has tracked commercial fishing boats for years. NOAA argues these trackers articulate fishing trips and make certain captains are reporting what they actually catch. The boating industry and recreational angler groups have supported such action in a long-sought quest for more accurate catch data used in determining closings and restrictions that impact recreational anglers.

“We argued they didn’t have the authority,” Walburn told the Naples Daily News. “But we also argued it was an unlawful invasion of privacy and, thus, an unlawful use of proprietary information. And while the court failed to address it, I still contend this monitoring brings things one step closer to tracking all fishing boats, including recreational, in federal waters.”

It’s worth recognizing that government agencies are supposed to adopt the least-expensive, least-intrusive measure to gather data and information. But in this case, they’re making charter/headboats buy something to provide information that’s evidently already free.

The largest group of fishers plying the Gulf of Mexico is, of course, our customer base. While there is no current outward indication it will happen, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that it’s likely a topic of discussion within NOAA, and we could be next to have to install such devices.

Those of us who regularly fish in the Gulf can identify with another concern of the charter captains. We all spend a lot of time and effort out there trying to locate our best spots. I have more than a dozen entered into my GPS, locations I’ve discovered away from the crowd. Once the government has that information, it’s accessible to the public. Doesn’t that seem to raise a privacy issue?

The bottom line is the boating and fishing industries diligently support and lobby for programs that more accurately provide catch information enabling planners to be more precise and, especially, fair with their fish management decisions, something that hasn’t always been the case, and it continues to move in a favorable direction. Moreover, since such a large segment of our customers buy their boats primarily for fishing, we must stay alert to every regulatory action that could negatively impact fishing.

Fishermen are watching.

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