If you try picking Uncle Sam’s pocket, you better not miss.
Two enterprising eel fishermen from Northern California are now in the U.S. government’s crosshairs for keeping a hi-tech probe that had come unmoored from the sea floor 300 meters below. And rather than return the feds’ gizmo for the greater good of science, the men are holding it ransom.
Patrick Anderson and Daniel Sherer were slapped last week with a federal lawsuit plus a demand to cough up at least $115,000 in damages for poaching Scientific Mooring MS1, one of seven critical sensory devices that scientists from around the world are using to study the ocean during the El Niño season. The fisherman, however, hope to net a finder’s fee and damages of $45,000 for forcing their business to suffer. So far the U.S. Geological Survey has been unwilling to barter.
“It’s his rollerskate and he can sell it to whoever or keep it all he wants,” Daniel’s father, David Sherer, who had been acting as his son’s attorney until recently, told The Daily Beast.
The 79-year-old trial attorney had initially written a salty letter with the heading “Salvage Bottom Instrument” on March 23 to the Department of Interior’s attorney hammering home that the U.S. government risked losing its gadget if it didn’t gin up “numbers” to pay his son and his partner Anderson, who he said are now the “OWNERS of the equipment.”
In a kind of ultimatum of his own, the attorney and proud dad (who likened himself as “an old trial dog”) said the fishermen would be willing to part with the device for its value, which he spitballed to be worth “our arbitrary figure of $400,000,” for far less.
“We offer to SELL (you can use any other word you like in an agreement) it to you for $45,000,” Sherer wrote in the letter.
No such luck so far.
“There’s not one dollar on the table,” Sherer said. “The absolute only thing they’ve said is, ‘Give it back to us. Period.’”
Roger Whitney, 62, runs the wholesaler Bay Fresh Seafood and called Moss Landing Harbor his home away from home since he was a toddler.
Nary a fisherman can dock without coming into contact with the wholesaler. Six months back he met Daniel Sherer while helping him unload his first hagfish inventory from his boat Irish.
“He knew what he was doing,” Whitney told us, adding that a good day for Sherer would be reeling in $1,000 to $1,500 worth of fish.
Whitney learned of Sherer’s strange day pulling the MS1 device from the ocean.
“He did tell me because he said he had to send a diver down to get stuff out of his propellers.”
The discovery was far from an anomaly. In fact, Whitney said fisherman of all stripes reel in rogue scientific equipment around Monterey Bay.
“They find stuff out there all the time floating from MBRI,” he said, using the acronym for the famous research facility whose staffers offer fishermen to utilize their docks.
He said there have been many 10-foot, yellow-colored torpedos known as autonomous underwater vehicles that work like robotic cartographers.
Most of the fishermen simply alert the scientists at MBRI’s campus and return their wares, though they’re given “something for it.”
“This is the first incident where someone is looking for money,” he said.
If Whitney had been the one to find the MS1, he wouldn’t have gone fishing for money.
“I would have just given it back. I’m sorry. I personally would have given it back to them.”
Still, Whitney doesn’t deny the device could have done severe harm to the fishermen’s vessel.
“That is basically was a hazard to navigation,” he said. “Let’s just say a 20-foot boat struck it on a calm day doing 40 mph and hit this thing it could be deadly.”
The stalemate forced the feds’ hands, who in turn filed a 25-page federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Northern California to sink the fishermen.
The exhibits alone paint Daniel Sherer almost like a two-bit shoplifter or gloating hunter (donning fishing hooks instead of a rifle) and oozing smiles in a selfie alongside his scientific treasure find.
Or they painted Sherer like some harebrained bankrobber hightailing it behind the wheel of his white pickup truck to reach some undisclosed warehouse to stash the government’s hot property.
The lawsuit suggests the MS1 was dropped in “the shallowest of seven wireline moorings” and that it was supposed to stay under water for 18 months before detaching from its anchor and float to the surface to be recovered by a team of scientists and dropped down again in time for summer.
What Sherer has in his possession is “causing damages” and “irreparable harm to scientific work that was not and will not be performed due to [Sherer’s and Anderson’s] wrongful acts of possession and claimed ownership,” the lawsuit claims. More than over a year of precious data has been breached and the Scientific Mooring MS1 and the court documents suggests “is a critical component of scientific work” that now “may not be usable for scientific research because of improper handling by such untrained persons.”
Anderson and Sherer named their company with their initials, A&S Fisheries.
Normally their main catch is a type of eel known as hagfish. The men trap hagfish and sell them wholesale and alive to a middleman down in San Pedro for around $1 a pound. From there the eels are exported to Korea, where they’re served as dinner entrees.
On Jan. 17, the propellers got jammed on Sherer’s recently purchased Irish, his 30-foot fishing boat. It wasn’t any regular sea dweller that landed them dead in the water.
“He sees the propeller actually getting tangled up with this instrument and it’s out there in the open ocean,” Sherer’s father, David, said.
Sherer decided to fish it out and loaded it onto his white pickup and drive off the dock. Then he made some calls.
“He telephones [MBRI] for two and half days and they don’t answer,” Sherer claims. “Then there’s five people showing up trying to get on his boat. They want this thing back.”
Sherer said the feds weren’t willing to make his son whole again after their property damaged his boat and left him high and dry for days, unable to earn a living.
“They have passed on the opportunity to negotiate and they made no counteroffer,” he said. “All they say is, ‘We want our equipment back as soon as possible.’”
Indeed, in a response to Sherer’s initial estimates for a five-figure reward for the item’s safe return, a lawyer on behalf of the Department of Interior wrote that the scientific stunt would unleash the Department of Justice’s attorney armada, who will use “all legal means available” because Sherer and his company are “effectively holding the equipment as de facto hostage…”
Sherer is not intimidated.
“Whatever is floating in the open ocean that’s not being attended to is salvage and the government isn’t immune to that,” he said.
The father, son, and his fishing partner believe the item is theirs fair and square and that the feds are acting like weeping losers.
“He found it and salvaged it as his own,” David Sherer said.
Sherer and company are leaning on dusty “salvage laws” dating back to 3,000-year-old Phoenician records whereby if a find were claimed and no party (or sovereign) came forward “the goods shall belong to him, who has found them,” according to The Black Book of Admiralty cited in a comprehensive essay written by Lawrence J. Lipka.
Fast-forward to modern times and the principles evolve into the so-called Laws of Oleron and Maritime laws. America’s interpretation of the so-called natural law concept of ownership has evolved over time. Most notably has been the notion first brought by Martin J. Norris in The Law of Salvage that the question of ownership is never forsaken.
“The salvor obtains a right of possession; he does not acquire ownership or title to the salved property.”
Matthew D. Dudman, law program director at the California State University Maritime Academy, believes the fishermen and their lawyer-dad’s moves may be a consequence of misinterpreting the law.
“If you find property then generally the basic rule is that’s not yours, it’s still owned by whoever the property owner is. But you have a lien, a right to compensation.”
That could be worth as much as half the value but not the full value, Dudman said. The moment Daniel Sherer informed them he had MS1 and they answered they wanted it then it was no longer abandoned. “They didn’t become the owners of it but they may have salvage rights.”
And the feds might reconsider forking over some kind of compensation for the fisherman saving their precious sensor from being destroyed or endangering other sea vessels.
Also, counter to Sherer’s suggestion he could cut a deal with a viable customer, not so fast. Dudman says, “They don’t own it so they can’t sell it to anyone they want.”
Asked about who else the fishermen might sell it to Sherer says he remains open minded. “We don’t have to be bad guys, we’re just looking for what’s fair.”
And this isn’t an attempt to start some sort of seafaring protest either.
“There’s nothing anti-government about it. This isn’t a protest,” he assured.
For any countries hoping to score the MS1, Sherer said they won’t be reckless. “We don’t want the Russians backing their trucks up and getting a hold of it.”
Asked where the MS1 is now, and Sherer got tightlipped.
“It’s in a safe place. But I can’t talk about that. No comment,” he said.
Charlie Paull, a geologist at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, admits the probes could be vulnerable to the elements, although he likely wasn’t referring to the device breaking loose from its anchor and ensnaring boats like the Irish.
“There is always risk in putting instruments in the canyon,” he said back in October when he and his team dotted the ocean with MS1 and other devices to study “submarine canyon” activity as part of a program with one Chinese and two British universities.
“But after many years, I think we’ve learned how to minimize these risks. And if we don’t take risks we’re never going to be able to figure out what’s going on down there.”
The scientist was talking about tempests pounding the shores or geological activity that could destroy the instruments. Pirates weren’t in the equation.