Fishermen have mixed feeling about so-called black boxes
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Fishermen have mixed feeling about so-called black boxes

The Associated Press | March 14, 2005

NEWPORT, Ore. (AP) — There's a small black box wired onto Mark Chase's trawler, the Norma M. Once an hour, it tells the government where the boat is.

The box is there to keep Chase out of closed waters so that a groundfish species that collapsed during the 1990s can rebound.

Chase had to pay $1,300 up front for the satellite monitoring system, and an additional $20 a month, even though he has done nothing to make anyone suspicious.

Owners of 300 other West Coast boats were required to install the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "vessel monitoring system" in 2003.

Chase wasn't happy about the black box program and the expensies he had to shoulder, but now he thinks the satellite link will be useful when he installs a computer on the boat for e-mail and navigation. It may even provide thermal images that could help him catch more fish.

NOAA Fisheries is now thinking about expanding the program to include hundreds of fishermen who don't target groundfish. But the plan is meeting with mixed reaction.

Salmon trawlers, for example, only pull in the occasional yellow-eye or canary rockfish, and they're allowed to set hooks in waters closed to groundfishermen.

"It's an ankle bracelet," Kevin Bastien, a Newport salmon fisherman. "How would you like it if for no reason you had to have an ankle bracelet on? We didn't cause this problem. I didn't catch one yellow-eye last year, not one, and only a handful of canaries. We're going to fight it tooth-and-nail."

The black box program came about after the National Marine Fisheries started closing off areas based on water depth. The larger areas were tougher to police.

The monitoring system pays off for fishermen because it allows for more liberal harvest limits, fewer boat inspections and fewer people breaking the law, says Yvonne de Reynier, chief of NOAA fisheries' groundfish management branch.

"We have to maintain the integrity of these rockfish conservation areas," de Reynier said. "Our goal is to provide a tool that both protects the fish and increases the amount of fish and consequent revenue," de Reynier said.

In January and February, NOAA Fisheries held meetings to get public comment on nine options for expanding the program. The Pacific Fishery Management Council will consider expansion in April.

The council's recommendation will lead to a proposed rule by NOAA, which could be implemented as early as next fall.

Only limited-entry groundfishermen are required to have the monitoring system on board, but the expansion could include all "open access" fishermen, or those with a federal permit who travel outside state waters.

"How would you like a camera in your office at work?" asked Lee Taylor, a Newport fisherman. "I'm rather flabbergasted. We're not getting rich at this."

Peter Huhtala is senior policy director for the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, a non-profit group that advocates for sustainable fisheries.

"I can understand the irritation from fishermen's point of view about having this big brother box on your boat. I also understand the need to rebuild the groundfish species that have been so severely depleted," he said. "In the long run, there'll be more fishing opportunities, the fishing industry will be stronger and there'll be more dollars in coastal communities."

He added, however, that he'd prefer to see the federal government pay the cost of the units.

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