A Hook in the Biden Administration: Herring Fishermen's Power Play

Veteran Fisherman Challenges Federal Oversight in Maritime Law

by Zain ul Abedin
A Hook in the Biden Administration: Herring Fishermen's Power Play
© Samuel Corum/Getty Images

In the vast, open waters of the Atlantic, Bill Bright steers his 140-foot fishing trawler through the deep blue, tirelessly pursuing the elusive schools of Atlantic herring. Despite the ocean's vastness, the presence of the federal government is as palpable as the salt in the air.

Regulations are a constant companion for Bright and his fellow captains, who must notify regulators before departure and are tracked throughout their journey. Sometimes, a federal observer, mandated by the government, joins them to monitor the catch and ensure compliance with the fishing laws.

While regulations are given in this industry, a contentious 2020 federal rule has sparked opposition among these fishermen. This rule mandates that they bear the cost of the observers' salaries, adding a significant financial burden of $700 per day.

This has led to a protracted legal battle between four family-owned fishing companies and the Department of Commerce, a dispute set to be heard by the Supreme Court. The outcome of this case could have far-reaching implications, potentially altering the landscape of federal regulatory power across various sectors, including environmental management, workplace safety, and food standards.

Dispute Over Fisheries Law

For decades, conservative legal movements have sought to curb the perceived overreach of federal agencies, advocating for reduced government intervention and increased Congressional oversight in regulatory processes.

However, for Bright, a seafood industry veteran of 40 years, this battle transcends ideological lines. "This is not about politics," he asserts. "This is about what's right for our fishery”. The heart of the dispute lies in interpreting a 1976 law related to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

This law empowers the agency to implement regulations deemed "necessary and appropriate" for species management. The lower courts have interpreted this as authority to charge the fishing industry for government observers. However, Bright and his colleagues argue that this interpretation stretches beyond the law's intentions.

Impact on Regulatory Power

The broader implications of this case are immense. A ruling favoring the fishermen could significantly limit the deference traditionally granted to agencies in regulatory matters, affecting many industries.

William Buzbee, a Georgetown Law professor specializing in environmental and administrative law, emphasizes the case's potential to reshape government operations at all levels. While halting the observer payment program last year, the Biden administration warns of a "convulsive shock" to the legal system if agency deference is overturned.

This debate, often framed in partisan terms, highlights the evolving stance of conservatives towards agency deference, a principle initially welcomed for its regulatory flexibility. Still, it is now viewed as granting excessive autonomy to federal agencies.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear the cases, Bright and others in the seafood industry maintain their commitment to sustainable fishing practices, crucial for their livelihoods and the health of the oceans. They are not against regulation per se but seek a balance that considers the financial realities of their industry.

The stakes are high with high operational costs and the unpredictability of fishing yields. For Bright, despite the challenges, the thrill of a successful catch after a hard-fought battle at sea remains as exhilarating as ever, a testament to his enduring passion for the sea and its bounty.