Suit Challenging New Charter Boat Rules Ok'd As Class Action

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Six captains and five companies from Florida and Louisiana can represent others in a lawsuit challenging new federal regulations for nearly 1,300 charter boats across the Gulf of Mexico, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan certified the suit early this month as a class action for the people who take small groups of anglers into the Gulf. She rejected an argument that some charter captains support the regulations.

“The claims and defenses of class representatives are typical of the claims of the class as a whole,” she wrote on June 2.

The lawsuit contends that privacy and other rights are violated by regulations which require permanently active tracking devices on the boats. The suit also challenges requirements to report information including the crew size, number of customers, the fee charged to each and the amount and price of fuel.

Although the regulations took effect in January, the government has not yet set a date for requiring the devices, said Judy Pino, spokeswoman for the nonprofit law firm New Civil Liberties Alliance, which represents the captains.

The captains consider the tracking device “the regulatory equivalent of an ‘ankle bracelet’ (or anchor bracelet!) that constantly monitors their businesses and personal lives,” the firm said in a news release Friday. The firm's aim, according to its website, is “to tame the unlawful power of state and federal agencies.”

The devices amount to warrantless searches for information that could be turned over to law enforcement and other agencies, said the lawsuit filed in August against the National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA Fisheries, and its parent agencies.

NOAA Fisheries did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the agency generally does not discuss pending litigation.

The trackers would keep tabs on their boats not just while they were used for fishing but on sightseeing trips and personal recreation and even dinners on board, the lawsuit said.

It was filed for captains Billy Wells, of River Ridge, Louisiana; Allen Alburn, Kraig Dafcik, Joey Dobin and Jim Rinckey, of Naples, Florida, and Frank Ventimiglia, of Fort Myers, Florida, and their companies.

“Mr. Walburn also operates boats in Alaska where the NOAA requirement is simply to have a paper logbook of locations where fishing occurs and fish is caught,” the lawsuit said. Since the customers also have to sign them, the logbooks are more reliable than electronic reports as well as being less intrusive and expensive, it said.

In addition to NOAA Fisheries; defendants are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Commerce Department, and each agency's top administrator.