Keys commercial fishers unanimously opposed mandatory satellite tracking while fishing for snapper and grouper in the South Atlantic at a meeting Wednesday in Key Largo.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is proposing to require all federal snapper-grouper permit holders to install vessel monitoring systems on their boats. The devices, which cost upwards of $3,000, transmit a continuous signal to a satellite that bounces to a shore-based NOAA Law Enforcement facility. Council deputy executive director Gregg Waugh said the aim is to gain a better scientific understanding of snapper/grouper populations, improve management of stocks, and reduce illegal fishing activity, such as violations of closed areas. Waugh said VMS systems already are required in the commercial Gulf reef, highly migratory pelagics, and rock shrimp fisheries.
Waugh said the council’s preference is to adopt Amendment 30 only if there is money available from NOAA to reimburse fishermen for purchasing the units. Fishermen would have to cover installation, repairs and monthly subscription fees, which could run thousands of dollars extra. The council estimates just more than 500 permit holders, from the Carolinas through the Keys, would have to install VMS units.
Keys fishermen voiced a litany of reasons to Waugh and council members Ben Hartig and John Jolley on Wednesday why this is a bad idea: burdensome repair and maintenance costs; unnecessary as a law-enforcement tool since the majority of vessels are day boats operating in coastal waters already closely monitored by federal and state marine law-enforcement officers; and potential safety hazards from VMS systems draining a vessel’s batteries, among others.
Key West fisherman Daniel Padron likened the VMS proposal to being under house arrest.
“I have done no criminal action in Southeast Florida and I don’t deserve an ankle bracelet,” Padron said. “When the bad guys are caught, slap a VMS on their boat.”
Key Wester George Niles agreed.
“I used to own a Gulf reef fish permit. When I was told I had to have the VMS, I told them to shove it,” Niles said. “We’ve heard horror stories when they implemented them in the Key West area because the VMS left them stranded. The problems and the unsafe aspect far outweigh the safety aspects.”
Keys fisherman Richard Stieglitz said fisheries managers are expending too much effort on monitoring commercial fishers and not enough on recreational anglers.
“You need to put your efforts into monitoring the recreational sector,” Stieglitz said. “You can’t run a fishery on just what the commercial fishermen are doing. You have no idea what recreational fishermen are doing.”
Fisherman Rick Turner said VMS is unnecessary for the Keys reef fishery because most commercial boats don’t venture more than 70 miles from their home ports.
“There are law enforcement boats all over the place,” Turner said. “If I am in a closed zone, you can look at me with a telescope and see where I am. Putting the time and effort into augmenting our law enforcement would be better spent money. I would favor VMS for someone with a criminal violation.”
Hartig and Jolley frequently nodded sympathetically as one fisherman after another voiced opposition. Hartig said the input at previous public hearings held in Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral was similarly negative.
The Council is expected to take up Amendment 30 at its meeting June 10-14 in Stuart. If approved, it could be sent to the Secretary of Commerce by August, with regulations taking effect in 2014.