Turns out, the government doesn’t take too kindly to the theft of one of its scientific buoys.
According to a lawsuit filed last week by federal prosecutors in California, two commercial fishermen are essentially hostage-takers, as they recovered a loose United States Geological Survey buoy in January 2016 and are now demanding money for its return.
By contrast, the fishermen’s lawyer said on Monday that his clients (one of which is his son) recovered the offshore buoy, which had come loose from its moorings due to a storm. Therefore, because they took possession of the buoy, they became in fact, its rightful owners. The fishermen are not asking for a ransom—now $13,000—but merely a sticker price.
"If you lose something in the ocean, it doesn't stay yours forever, it becomes salvaged," David Sherer, the attorney, told Ars. "It’s not government property anymore, it’s the finder's property."
But by his own admission, Sherer also said that he had "very little" experience in maritime law.
On March 25, the government filed its lawsuit (US v. Sherer et al) against the two men and their firm, A&S Fisheries, demanding that the court mandate the return of the buoy along with at least $115,000 in damages. On Monday, Sherer told Ars that the government had been made aware that the price has now fallen to $13,000.
Weird scienceBy the government’s telling, Scientific Mooring MS1 was placed at a depth of 300 meters below the surface of the ocean in Monterey Bay outside of Moss Landing, California (about 100 miles south of San Francisco).
When it was deployed in October 2015, the buoy’s objective was to gather data about conditions in an ocean canyon during the current El Niño event. Data would be obtained through April 2016. Once complete, the buoy was designed to release itself from the seafloor anchor and send a signal to its scientific handlers so that they could manually download its data. The buoy was part of theCoordinated Canyon Experiment and was designed to send data to numerous scientific teams from universities worldwide.
However, on January 15, 2016, MS1 apparently detached itself from its anchor and floated to the surface. By January 17, its homing beacon indicated to the United States Coast Guard that it had been taken to shore at Moss Landing Harbor. Two days after that, Daniel Sherer, one of the fishermen, informed the USGS that he had taken possession of the buoy and that he would not return it unless the government paid him. That same day, January 19, a government representative met Sherer in person, and again he refused to give up custody without payment.
Soon after, Sherer and his colleague Patrick Anderson lawyered up—and told the government that they were represented by Sherer’s father, David. By February 19, Karen Glasgow, a lawyer with the Department of the Interior, sent the men a letter.
As she wrote:
Four days after that, David Sherer responded with his own letter:
According to David Sherer, his son Daniel and Anderson were out fishing one day and came across the "floating item," approximately five miles offshore. "[My son was] out and he finds this item, which is not connected anymore, it’s gotten loose," he said. "It’s blocking the waterway, and loose. And he picks it up as a lost item."
But one maritime lawyer that Ars spoke with said American law actually doesn't rely on a principle of finders-keepers.
"In the maritime world, by finding property that belongs to someone else, you do not obtain title to it or the right to possession of it unless it has been abandoned," Marilyn Raia, a maritime lawyer in San Francisco, e-mailed. "The offshore distance is irrelevant. If asked, I would not accept the defense of these fishermen in the pending action. This wasn’t abandoned so it’s a moot point really. Abandonment involves an intentional relinquishment of rights to property. You can’t negligently abandon something."
Department of Justice lawyers did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
Kim Fulton-Bennett, a spokesman at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which manages the experiment that the MS1 was part of, told Ars he was not familiar with the particulars of this case. However, he did note that there have been "occasional issues" with people taking or damaging oceanic equipment in general. "It's one of the many hazards we face any time we put expensive gear in the ocean," Fulton-Bennett wrote.