Court: Gulf fishermen can fight vessel monitors

Published 3:21 am Sunday, June 15, 2008

Commercial Gulf of Mexico fishermen were emboldened Friday after an appeals court ruled that they can fight a federal requirement that all their boats have location tracking systems.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal judge’s ruling that the Gulf Fishermen’s Association had waited too long to challenge the government regulation. National Marine Fisheries Service officials had argued the fishermen needed to challenge the rule within 30 days of its publication in the Federal Register in August 2006.

But on Dec. 6, 2006 — a day before the rule regarding Gulf reef fisheries was to take effect — the service postponed its implementation for three months. That reopened a 30-day window for the fisherman to challenge the requirement in court, according to the opinion issued Friday by the three-judge appeals panel. That means their appeal filed on Dec. 15, 2006, was valid.

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“Hopefully, we’ll end up back in court here in Tampa,” association president Glen Brooks, who lives in Cortez, Fla., said in a telephone interview.

Mike Mastry of St. Petersburg, Fla., the attorney for the group representing 300 commercial fishermen in the Gulf from Texas to Florida, said he expected the government to appeal Friday’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think that we do have a decent shot at winning the case on the merits,” Mastry said, including Fourth Amendment protections against government intrusion.

The government lawyer, Stacey Person, representing the Department of Commerce, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the Commerce Department, has said the vessel monitoring systems are needed to protect restricted waters from intrusion by fishing boats.

The fishermen, who had to install the monitors to keep their federal Gulf reef fishing permits, say they object mainly for privacy reasons.

“We were incensed that we were being singled out to be followed,” said Peter Bacle, owner of the Stock Island Lobster Co. in the Florida Keys. “We feel like there’s a very basic principle here of our civil liberties.”