Last month an Oregon fisherman was found not guilty in US District Court of "assaulting, impeding and interfering with" a federal fisheries observer while at sea in 2014.
The judge ruled that although the fisherman had allegedly berated the observer and jabbed him with his finger, his actions did not rise to the force sufficient under the law.
The fisherman, the deck boss of a groundfish trawler in Astoria, had been arrested in mid-August by Oregon State Police and a special agent and enforcement officer from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The fisherman, whom the observer claimed poked him in the shoulder, was charged with a federal misdemeanor violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which NOAA says prohibits forcible assault, resistance, opposition, intimidation, sexual harassment, bribery or interference with a fishery observer. If found guilty, the fisherman could have faced up to $100,000 in fines and up to six months in prison.
The National Marine Fisheries Service provides a curriculum for observer training, starting with first aid, with a suggested training time of 60 minutes. Harassment training receives a further 45 minutes, in which an observer will "be able to recognize harassment, minimize its effects, and know what actions should be taken." The conflict resolution training is another 60 minutes, and trains the observer to be able to "recognize the potential of conflicts, the impacts they may have on performing assigned tasks, and describe ways to minimize them." Every trawler boat in Astoria has a full-time observer.
In an interview with The Daily Astorian of Astoria, Oregon, the fisherman said the dispute revolved around the handling of a 20-pound halibut. The fisherman, a deck boss since 1986, said he was worried the observer was in an unsafe position on the boat, and tried explaining that to him. He insists he never touched the observer.
The fisherman has not fished since he was arrested, and is now waiting for an opening on a boat to get back to work.
We will not name the fisherman here, to protect his privacy and to give him a chance to have a good working relationship with future fisheries observers. It should be noted that NOAA named him in their press release at the time. Nor will we name the observer, whose irritation at being allegedly poked in the shoulder with a finger was considered justification for the arrest of the fisherman and his subsequent 7 months of unemployment.
In a future issue, we'll look at how observers are assigned and trained, and how their performance is measured. If you have questions, comments or observer stories, share them with us, and we'll pass them on to NOAA.