Food For Thought 5-16-08
Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.
Today I want to talk about an issue that has been on my mind for some time now, that’s the illegal fishing that has been going on at the Grotto. I have been diving the Grotto for the past 12 years and have logged in close to 1,000 dives in the Grotto during that time. During the last year I have noticed a big increase in the amount of fishing line that is tangled in the coral outside of the Grotto and stretched across the openings to the Grotto. I typically spend a couple hours every weekend of my diving time untangling the fishing line and collecting it, trying to make the Grotto a pristine and attractive dive location for the hundreds of tourists who dive there every week. There are some dives that I have so much cut up rebar, spark plugs, and homemade molded weights in my pockets that it’s tough to keep my swimsuit on. The Grotto is supposed to be a sanctuary, which means that it’s illegal to fish there; however, it has been fished very heavily for the past year. Obviously with all the fishing going on, the fish aren’t being protected there at all, but my concern is more about all the fishing line they leave behind, and what it may mean to the tourists who come there to dive. Not only is it ugly to see the fishing line tangled in all the coral, but it is also a safety hazard when you have heavy duty monofilament line stretched across the openings that are used to come in and go out of the Grotto. If a tourist gets tangled in one of those lines and panics, it could easily lead to a drowning and a very bad situation.
A few months ago, Fish & Wildlife officers caught two Chinese contract workers illegally fishing at the Grotto. They were arrested and charged with violating a sanctuary. They spent a few days in jail while waiting to be processed and post their bail. Before the case went to trial, the Attorney General’s Office offered them a plea bargain, if they would plead guilty to the lesser of the charges; they would recommend only that they be given probation and a minimal fine. So when the case came before Judge Mona Manglona, she accepted the plea agreement and gave them 6 months in jail, all suspended except for the few days already served, and a $25 fine. I was outraged when I heard about it; I thought what a mockery of justice. Why bother even having these laws in the first place if that’s all we’re going to do to those who are caught? It was my understanding that the judge said something about it being a rarely committed offense when she handed down the light sentence. She obviously hasn’t been diving in the Grotto for the past year or she’d know better.
Then I had a discussion with a friend of mine, who happens to be a lawyer about the situation. He told me I shouldn’t be so hard on Judge Manglona, because if it was a plea agreement, she really could only go on the evidence and facts as provided by the Attorney General’s Office, and if they didn’t bring in expert testimony or present facts about the frequency of the problem or the magnitude of it, then the Judge wouldn’t have that information to base her decision on. He also told me that the Judge only has two options at that point, to either accept or reject the plea bargain as presented by the Attorney General’s Office. He said the bulk of the blame should be placed on the Attorney General’s Office for not recommending a stiffer penalty, and doing a better job of researching the facts in the case about the problem of illegal fishing in the Grotto.
A few days after that conversation, I happened to run into Matt Gregory, the Attorney General, so I had a discussion with him about it. He said he had just learned about the situation a couple days before, but planned on looking into it. He did say though that his office has to make decisions about where to allocate their time and funds though. Should they assign prosecutors to the more serious crimes like white collar crime, sex abuse cases and domestic violence, or should they make crimes like this one the priority and assign the personnel to them to be able to actually take them to trial and prosecute them? He said it is very expensive and time consuming to take a case to trial, and like every other agency, his agency is short on personnel and funds, so they have to make judgment calls about which cases to take to trial and which ones to offer plea bargains in. And sometimes in the big scheme of things, crimes like this one aren’t looked at as being serious enough to merit the time and expense required to properly prosecute it. And the defense attorneys know that the Attorney General’s Office doesn’t have the money or personnel to take cases like that to court, so they insist on ridiculously low plea bargains which let their clients off scott free basically. I had to admit, as much as I didn’t like it, I could understand where he was coming from and his logic. And yes, I’d hate to think that a child molester got a plea bargain instead of an illegal fisherman. But that wasn’t going to help the problem at hand, stopping the illegal fishing taking place at the Grotto. For a $25 fine, I’m thinking that most of the people who are fishing there aren’t going to think twice about whether it’s worth the risk or not, they could easily sell a couple fish to make up the cost of the fine and still have plenty left in their pocket.
So then the only logical place to find a solution to the problem would be the legislature. They have the ability to change the law. They could make it a felony instead of a misdemeanor, which would make it an immediately deportable offense if committed by a contract worker. That way you wouldn’t have to worry about repeat offenders. Or they could change the minimum penalty guidelines for violating that particular law. In most states, if you violate their hunting and fishing laws, you not only face a several thousand dollar fine, but you also forfeit all equipment in your possession at the time, which would include all fishing equipment, and would even include the vehicle you drove to get there. The state takes possession of those things and can then sell them at auction. If we don’t have the resources to properly prosecute our laws when they are broken, we can change the minimum sentencing and fine guidelines to make it extremely prohibitive and risky to violate the laws.
But if we don’t have the will or the stomach to impose serious minimum fines to deter these types of crimes, then why have the laws in the first place? That really has to be the question you ask yourself at this point. Because it’s not worth Fish & Wildlife’s time or effort to go to the Grotto and conduct a stake out, having to pay overtime if the offender is only going to get a $25 fine in the end anyway. So if we’re not going to raise the minimum penalty and really hit the offenders hard by imposing staggering fines and confiscating all their equipment, including vehicles, then what are we really accomplishing by setting these areas aside as sanctuaries? Are we just turning it into a private fishing club for those who don’t care about our laws? Because the law abiding citizens will actually pay attention to the signs and the laws and won’t fish there, but those who don’t care about our laws and who just want the biggest fish because they are in a sanctuary will be the only ones really benefitting from having these laws. Is that what we really want to accomplish? Rewarding those who don’t care about our laws and giving them the biggest fish because the rest of us honor the laws? Does that make sense on any planet?
I was diving at the Grotto last Saturday night, and there was an old 20 passenger mini bus there, it looked like one of the old ones that used to be used by the garment factories. The registration had expired a couple years ago and had never been renewed. I knew it meant that we had some illegal fishermen at the Grotto again. During the dive, I went outside of the Grotto and while I was out there I had a chunk of rebar tied to fishing line go floating past my mask, they were fishing right above me. After the dive we called Fish & Wildlife and reported the situation to them. They responded promptly and thanked us for the call and had someone come out to check out the situation. I understand they finally found the fisherman hiding behind the pavilion. He claimed he spoke no English, so they followed him home to get his information, but they did confiscate all of his fishing line and chunks of rebar he used for sinkers. Again, if we were serious about enforcing our laws, we would have given Fish & Wildlife the authority to seize his vehicle right then and there. But that’s not their fault – that would be the legislature’s fault.
As I see it, the legislature at this point really has two choices, unless they just want to keep making a mockery of the system and rewarding those who flagrantly abuse our laws. They can either do away with the sanctuary laws saying we can’t really afford to enforce or prosecute them anyway, and let everybody fish there instead of just the criminals, or they can raise the minimum fines to make a real impact when someone violates the laws. But if they think anything is being accomplished or that justice is being served the way things are set up and operating right now, they are fooling themselves. This is a system that is broken down and completely malfunctioning at every level, and yet we continue to pretend that it’s working and accomplishing something. I do believe that we have some lawmakers who want to do the right thing and enact laws that actually protect our natural resources and our people. Here is a chance for them to fix and improve a system that according to everyone in the loop, is simply not working. I can’t imagine why they would want to make it easy on those who disregard our laws and let them get away with plundering our natural resources, can you?
Food For Thought is now available online at http://www.fftsaipan.blogspot.com/ and if you want it by e-mail distribution please send me an e-mail at email@example.com
I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.