Once a Reporter, Always a Reporter

Three old things I know: Reporters should be as a fly on the wall. Once a reporter, always a reporter. Flies on walls are more attended than political spouses. Thus I blog.

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Name: Viki Volk
Location: St. George Island, Maryland

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Not to Say Fishermen Aren't Scoundrels

Not to say fishermen aren't scoundrels, liars, maybe even thieves -- at least of fish and oysters and crabs. Until recently that seemed penny ante compared to, say, derivative trading, whatever that is.

Fish thievery was more in keeping with the waterman who asked a legislative panel, "You don't think we'd take the last oyster, do you?" Indeed, the legislators did and legislated accordingly.

It isn't easy to legislate fish, or crabs for that matter. Oysters can be a tad bit simpler, staying in one place as they do. Thus fishery laws end up as complicated as proverbial fish tales. To make the point, a New England maritime museum displays a four-inch thick three-ring binder filled only with current tiny-print regulations.

By and large fisheries laws boil down to limiting when and where a certain number of fish can be taken and by what method. The result is that every fish, oyster, lobster and crab caught commercially carries a manifest from sea to platter.

Scoundrels can still steal fish and lying about their size and how they were caught is as old as fishing itself. But a lying, thieving fisherman will have to eat an undersized, out-of-season fish. Selling the wrong sized fish in the wrong season isn't going to work.

That does, however, leave the Bait and Switch Con -- recently demonstrated by mortgage lenders and again those derivative traders. Consider the bait, "You can afford this house." And the switch: But only at the first year rate. Or,"This house is worth a half-million dollars." Last year.

If it didn't sound so Biblical you could almost call those folks Fishers of Men.

Recent federal indictments surrounding the baiting of watermen and switching of fish manifests are now sending a handful of St. Mary's County watermen to federal prison. It seems their manifests contained lies about the method they used to entrap the fish. And the way the feds figured this out was to entrap the watermen, which somehow seems to wind back around and make the feds Fishers of Men. Or, as one of the men who bit on the bait described it, "You might be able to walk by a $100 bill lying on the ground one time. Maybe you can even walk by it a second time."

In a Bait and Switch the point is to make more money than the delivered product is worth. When the indictments came out the amounts of money the watermen were accused of making were laughable. The value of those landed fish must have been based on Cafe' des Artiste's dinner prices, joked local watermen. That was before the specter of federal prison rippled through the local watering community.

"If I was speeding up this highway, a cop would stop me and I'd get a ticket," said another fisherman. "They wouldn't wait until I'd gathered five years worth of tickets and make a federal case of it."

Fisheries are federal cases, partially because of the transitory nature of fish. Unlike the folks at the bankrupt banks, the bankrupt mega-insurance agencies or the financial investment firms, these fishermen broke federal laws dealing with how they caught fish. Traders and bankers and other derivative folks didn't break laws. They broke the nation. Maybe the whole world.

It seems, though, greed motivated all of them. And it happens that greed makes wrongly manifested fish a federal offense but wrongly manifested livelihoods legal.

So the punishment for lying about fish doesn't warrant a bail-out. Still, it seems that would be cheaper. Probably only one of the derivative folks' bonuses would cover even the Cafe' des Artiste prices applied to these watermen's fish. It seems possible only one bonus would suffice to convince all of these busted fishermen to never fish again. That's what the federal laws are all about -- stopping overfishing. Federal law presumes overfishing makes fish so rare they deserve federal protection -- it doesn't assume what some folks suspect, that the explosion of over-mortgaged houses lining the waterfront might have had something to do with the rarity of fish as well.

Then again, in some lights, it does seem odd that overfishing is the federal offense. If that is really why the fish are gone how come you can't catch any of those old toadfish anymore? There has never been a fishery for them. No manifest necessary for those bardogs. Just used to throw them back and hope they didn't bite again. Maybe they'll come back, too, once those fishermen reach prison, that is if the folks struggling to find jobs or pay their mortgages ever get a chance to just take a day off and go fishing again.

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