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Reeled in

Local fishermen are upset over a new requirement for what amounts to 'ankle bracelets' on their boats

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Captain Mark Tognazzini is still reeling over the very idea of the shiny rectangular box that now occupies a commanding spot in the watch house of his Morro Bay fishing boat.

"It's unbelievable. It gives anybody with a passcode the ability to see exactly where you are 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Tognazzini said, shaking his head.

It's been a month since he and other local fishermen reluctantly paid hundreds of dollars each for these black boxes to be installed on their boats, part of a new requirement by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Each boat's "vessel monitoring system" tracks the craft's position and speed by satellite and communicates that information hourly to federal regulators.

"Someone's sitting in an office watching you on a screen," said Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen's Organization President Jeremiah O'Brien. "If your system is down, you can't go out fishing till someone comes to fix it."

He called the requirement "an Orwellian idea."

"They can see if you go to the fuel dock, if you take your family on an outing on a nice day, or if you go out to sea to bury a loved one," fumed Tognazzini, who said that the required black box is the most expensive electronic equipment on his boat, the Bonnie Marietta.

The new requirement applies to fishermen who go after groundfish, such as rockfish, that stay in the local area. It doesn't apply to those who fish for migrating fish, such as salmon.

All the fishermen up and down the Morro Bay waterfront and Port San Luis are "absolutely taken aback" by the idea of mandatory surveillance, Tognazzini added.

From the National Marine Fisheries Service's point of view, explained in their recent publication on compliance, the vessel monitoring system is "an enforcement tool" necessary to "enhance monitoring" of areas now set aside for groundfish conservation, where commercial fishing of some species is prohibited.

But to local fishermen, the new requirement is another financial albatross around their necks. They're mandated to pay a monthly maintenance fee for the monitoring system. For Tognazzini, it's now $42.95, which, he said, he has to pay every month for the rest of his life, or as long as he owns his boat and wants to go fishing.

For Captain Ed Ewing of the South Bay, the monthly fee is $65. His unit can be used to send e-mail, although Ewing said he won't be using it for that, since federal regulators would be able to read everything he sends.

Captain Travis Evans, who's been fishing out of Port San Luis for 65 years, resents the fact that he's required to keep his boat's battery voltage strong and its electronics in working order for continuous operation of the vessel monitoring system--even if his boat is in drydock or he's too sick to go out.

"These guys are already making very little money. It's just another way to take the meager income they work for and risk their lives for," said O'Brien, the fishermen's organization president.

"It's an ethical issue," O'Brien noted. "What other industry anywhere requires all the participants to have an ankle bracelet or monitor so they know where you are 24 hours a day?"

But it's the idea that they're being treated like criminals that really upsets the fishermen.

"There's been no flagrant violation. Fish and Game and the Coast Guard have been our police department forever, with no complaints. What is the reason they feel this is necessary?" Ewing said.

The fines for fishing in a closed area are large enough to discourage any thought of infraction, according to the fishermen.

"We haven't even broken the law, and still we have to pay for what's basically an ankle bracelet. If I'd been proven to be a violator, then I could see being required to have it, the way they do with sex offenders. But this is just wrong," Tognazzini said.

As O'Brien wrote in a recent letter to legislators, "We are honest and hardworking people, and we resent this obvious insinuation that we are so untrustworthy as to require constant monitoring. It is a disgraceful way to treat any American citizen."

Tognazzini has asked the ACLU and elected representatives to look into the constitutionality of the mandated surveillance.

As his black box glowed with the word "comm"--showing that it was communicating his position to the federal regulators--he said, "This is beyond belief. People fought wars to stop this kind of Big Brother thing."


New Times contributor Kathy Johnston may be reached at kjohnston@newtimesslo.com.

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