Pounding relentlessly against the gusty waves, a horde of New England fishermen voyages into the boundless, commanding Atlantic. These are not mere anglers preying upon their daily bins but the embodiment of America’s oldest industry, desperate for a landmark victory at the nation’s highest court. Their plight – a grim struggle against what they perceive as an unwarranted government intrusion that could ultimately decide the destiny of an ancient vocation.
This week, at the steps of the Supreme Court, in two cases of high-stake drama, these fishermen mounted their challenge against a controversial regulation – a supposed Constitutional violation by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Under its dictates, they are obligated to accommodate government officials as human monitors aboard their vessels, an imposition that costs them an exorbitant $780-a-day fee, rendering their operation financially unsustainable.
The program that facilitated this contentious scenario was promptly established under President Donald Trump in 2020, aiming to deploy a monitor on 50 percent of all herring fishing trips to ensure adherence to environmental regulations. However, in an unexpected respite, in April 2023, due to a funding crunch, reimbursements were issued and the program was reluctantly halted.
The struggle is far from over. Jerry Leeman, Rob Odlin, and John Borden, fisher-leaders representing their fraternity, have now ventured into the pulsating heart of the national capital, Washington, D.C. They stand firm in their spat against the U.S. Dept. of Commerce and others in the cases Relentless Inc. v. U.S. Dept. of Commerce and Loper Bright v. Raimondo. The legal test in progress aims to disassemble a 1984 landmark ruling – the “Chevron deference,” which accommodates courts conferring deference to federal agencies to interpret ambivalent laws.
A shadow looms over their industry if they fail to overturn this precedence. The fishermen earnestly believe the defeat would tip their industry into a vortex of decline, paving the way for increased foreign seafood imports. Odlin laments, “It’s ridiculous that Icelandic fishermen can be off the coast of Iceland catching fish and then it goes on an airplane, lands in Boston, and becomes the fish and chips special at your local restaurant.”
Adding to the consternation, an alarming 70 to 85 percent of seafood in America is already imported, according to NOAA. Amid the rigors of this heightened import anomaly, Leeman asserts, “The New England fishermen are the most regulated fishermen in the world, but you, the U.S. consumer, are buying product from nations that do not abide by those regulations.”
Like once vibrant echoes fizzling out into futile whispers, we see the fading silhouette of an industry, a way of life, being gradually replaced by the grim visage of technocratic rigidity. Beyond preserving their livelihood, these fishermen ardently love their jobs, cherishing the thought of passing on an inherited legacy to their future generations.
However, the outcome of this legal scuffle carries broader implications. Critics argue a potential victory for the fishermen might trigger a domino effect, gradually declawing the executive agencies from their regulatory powers. The judicial shepherds tasked with navigating this tumultuous sea of predicaments already show signs of a divided court, displaying varied degrees of skepticism and hesitance.
In the throes of this tussle is an age-old industry on the brink, beleaguered men fighting for their heritage, and a nation divided over the balance of power. As the courtroom drama unfolds, it also stirs the currents of a looming storm within our democratic fabric. A storm that, if left unchecked, not only questions the structural integrity of our regulatory checks and balances but also threatens to erode the spirit of America’s oldest industry. It is an alarm sounded not in years or months, but today — the bell tolls for us all.