Two Santa Barbara brothers accused of violating federal laws related to a no-fishing zone off San Miguel Island beat the charges in late August when a federal judge determined that the government presented insufficient evidence to prove the crime. The decision highlighted deficiencies in the vessel monitoring system (VMS) used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to watch fishing boats and enforce the rules surrounding marine protected areas (MPAs), prompting an ongoing review of the system with changes likely on the way.
For longtime fishermen Jason and Shane Robinson, the decision saved them from paying more than $17,000 in fines, which is a relatively low amount compared to other penalties, in part because they were only charged with idling in an MPA too long, not for fishing there, which can bring fines of up to $140,000. But the case also revealed what they believe is an unfair culture of guilty until proved innocent when it comes to commercial fishing laws. “They threaten you based on the fact that it costs more to fight these than to accept a settlement,” said Jason. “That’s what they told me, and that’s how they did it. In my mind, this is their ATM machine. … It feels like extortion.”
The brothers were only able to fight the charges, which date back to a fishing trip they took on May 17, 2010, because attorney Rusty Brace of the Santa Barbara firm Hollister & Brace took on the case pro bono. Had he been tallying his time on this complicated matter, which he says the feds fought tooth-and-nail despite no hard evidence, the bill would have far exceeded the fines, costing perhaps as much as $80,000 when all was said and done.
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