A cause for revolution
The government's abuse of Virginia watermen in the false name of conservation

As a veteran reporter and a lifetime observer of bureaucrats, government, and citizen abuse, I've never witnessed such a miscarriage of 'phony' regulations as last week's hearing by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Virginia Beach that sets in motion the possible end of a multi-million dollar fisheries industry on the Chesapeake Bay in the name of saving a few turtles.

Yet the NMFS proposes to do just that:  End the pound net fishery as it has been known throughout the state's history because a few sea turtles that are endangered species are showing up dead in increasing numbers.

There are two problems:  More turtles are showing up dead in states that have no pound net fishing industry than in Virginia, and NMFS cannot produce any scientific evidence to date that 1 single turtle has been killed by Virginia pound netters.

But because the agency is charged by a federal laws and regulations passed under the hysteria gun of environmentalists, it must do something.  So it arbitrarily and capriciously decided that because 7 of 28 turtles stranded in pound nets in  2002 & 2003 died, the pound net fishing industry is responsible.  But the bureaucrats holding the hearing admitted they cannot scientifically document that a single death was caused by the pound nets encounters.

Scientists with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester, whose responsibility it is to track, study, and report turtle deaths for NMFS, say the deaths are more likely attributed to disease, perhaps leading the turtles to become entangled, lack of food in the bay, or unexpected environmental changes in the water.  They can't document one single death directly caused by pound nets.

Yet the MA-based NMFS bureaucrats reduced some of Virginia's most fiercely independent fishermen to 'beggars,' who had to plead:  "Don't take away our livelihoods even if it is for 2 or 3 turtles."  These guys  contribute millions of dollars to Virginia's economy and it can all be wiped out by NMFS over 2-3 dead turtles, dead from who knows what.

George Washington, president of the Virginia Watermen's Association, told the hearing, "I can't get too upset over 2-3 dead turtles." 

But unknown to the more than 50 watermen who drove to the Virginia Beach hearing from both sides of the bay from Reedville to the Eastern Shore, the odds are stacked against them.  The purpose of the hearing wasn't to solve the plight of the watermen, it was to advise them the law requires NMFS to 'do something' to save at any cost the turtles.  

When the hearing officers return to MA to report to their bosses, there'll be no advocate for the watermen, only 'here is a report of the hearing.  We gave them every opportunity to talk, but now we have no choice but  to act."

Pasquale Scida, endangered species at coordinator, protected resources division, representing NMFS said he didn't know when a decision might be made, but probably by May 6 the beginning of the turtle migration. He also admitted, under questioning, he had no personal experience with pound net fishing.  He'd only been a student and a federal bureaucrat.

If ever a government action cried out for revolution, for rebellion to return to this country's founding principles, the NMFS treatment of the Virginia watermen is that case.

Pound net fishermen spend $15,000 to $25,000 per net.  Each fisherman may have several.  They consist of poles up to 60-feet long that have to be cut or bought and sunk in the bay's bottom and leaders of a size determined by NMFS.  It is hard, back breaking, dangerous work in a less than perfect environment.  Fishermen have usually started putting up the pound net infrastructure by January, February. It's a huge investment that fishermen have and the requirements can be changed up to May 6.

From what Scida said, a decision won't be announced any earlier than 30-days before May 6.  It could be a total prohibition.  It could set new standards of size for pound nets and their leaders.  Or it could proceed with the current closed season during May & June without changes.  Not likely because last year at the end of the regular season, NMFS arbitrarily extended the season by an additional 2 weeks of fishing prohibition during the peak pound netting season. Many fishermen ignored the prohibition and Keith Like is the only one so far put on notice he is under investigation and may be prosecuted.

Reduced to begging, the once proud, independent waterman  told the hearing, "I'm one of many who'll be completely closed down....Dead turtles aren't coming from our nets.  I'm asking you to slow down and study this some more before making it final."  He was pleading to buy time, stability, protection of his industry and investment.

The fishermen pleaded to allow them to be represented in MA at the table as the NMFS bureaucrats make their decision, but Scida said they couldn't do that, but he'll be there representing the more powerful national environmental 'mafia' and there'll be no advocate for the watermen.

Well known fishing advocate Ed Bender told Scida that more than 100 turtles were stranded in SC and 500 in FL last year and the first of this year and there were no pound nets involved in either state.  The cause of dead was never determined in those cases.

"You people don't know what is causing these deaths, but you are going to put us out of business.  What if you do put us out of business and turtles keep showing up dead, are you going to pay us, put us back in business?"  Bender said.

One man said, "26 of the 379 dead turtles had propeller wounds, are you going to put the shipping industry and the pleasure craft boaters out of business?

The point was and is:  The fishermen are the easiest target.  They aren't organized.  Most lack a formal education. They can only whine and complain for fair treatment from an overpowering bureaucracy that is administered arbitrarily at its own whimes. And there is no powerful advocate representing their interest.

If ever a government action cried out for revolution, for rebellion to return to this country's founding principles, the NMFS treatment of the Virginia watermen is that case.