September 14, 2012 -- Fisherman Stephen Morris still recalls when the Coast Guard "ruined Christmas" in 2005. He was captain of the dragger Jessica and Susan on the way home after a long December trip when the Coast Guard radioed that it wanted to board the boat for an inspection. If you have been paying any amount of attention at all to what has been going on in recent years, you know what's coming.
The inspection revealed a spare net that had shrunk in some places after heavy use, as they often do. Some openings were an eighth-inch too small. Morris insisted that if he had any idea that the net wouldn't pass inspection, "I would have already thrown it overboard before the Coast Guard could see it."
So he was cited with a violation. For that and for a lobster claw on the deck, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pinned him with a fine of $7,000 and the boat owner $18,000. The agency also seized his catch, worth about $40,000 (and sold by NOAA for $25,000).
"I was told that if I appealed (the $7,000 fine), it would be $20,000," Morris said. Determined to fight back, he saw an attorney. But the attorney, who knew the score at NOAA, told him that if he appealed, "You will not win this case." Things were that certain in those days, because the adjudication game was so tipped in the government's favor, as would eventually come out in grand fashion.
So he signed for the $7,000, under coercion, he says, and NOAA started taking it out of his settlement pay after future trips.
Then at one point he changed boats and the payments were no longer being taken out. At this point, maybe one can fault Morris for not following up, but he says he assumed — wrongly — that he had paid off what he owed.
Now guess what. NOAA's financial office has sent him a final bill for almost $13,000, payable in October. Even with the payments he's made, he owes almost twice the original amount.
And unless he successfully appeals to the same people sending him these letters, "they're going to revoke my operator's permit."
"I'm not even supposed to be a lumper," he said. (Lumpers offload boats.)
Morris, like most fishermen, has been following the dismal adventures of fisheries regulation and enforcement in the Northeast, the inspectors general and the special master appointed by the Commerce Department. It leaves him with little hope for what he would consider a fair shake.
We all know a great deal about the dysfunction of the law enforcement office and all the abuses. Morris scoffs at the idea that he can get a fair hearing with NOAA, and he calls the idea of signing an installment schedule "starting a payment plan with the anti-Christ."
Read the full story at the New Bedford Standard Times