Oystermen claim state regulations violate their privacy

Commercial oystermen in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes are contending in a Baton Rouge court that the state-mandated vessel monitoring systems installed on their boats are illegal and should be removed.

They are claiming the state has no right to monitor their vessels while they are not on public oyster leases or reefs.

The oystermen say they are unable to disengage or power down the monitoring systems even when their vessels are not commercially taking oysters from Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries-managed and regulated public natural reefs or LDWF-designated oyster seed grounds.

“The Legislature did not authorize the LDWF to track, collect or use the VMS data from oyster vessels engaging in any activities unrelated to the commercial taking of oysters from the public natural reefs or oyster seed grounds or while the vessels are not on the oyster seed grounds,” their lawsuit, filed Thursday at the 19th Judicial District Court, states.

LDWF attorney Fred Whitrock said Friday he could not comment on the suit because the department had not been served with a copy of it.

Metairie lawyer Joseph Piacun, who represents the oystermen, said the VMS equipment as implemented and installed “goes beyond the authority granted to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.”

The named plaintiffs number more than 40, but the suit says class members reside throughout Louisiana and adjoining states and number “in the hundreds (if not more).”

The defendants include LDWF and the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, as well as Imtech Marine USA Inc. and Pole Star Space Applications Inc. The suit says LDWF contracted with those companies to design and install its VMS equipment and its integrated data collection system on all vessels subject to the VMS program. The two firms also track, collect and monitor data from the VMS installed systems, the suit adds.

The Legislature approved a measure — Act 922 — in 2008 requiring all vessels taking oysters for commercial purposes from the public natural reefs or oyster seed grounds (except those in Calcasieu Lake or Sabine Lake) to possess an oyster seed ground vessel permit. LDWF issues the permits.

The permits are not required for vessels harvesting oysters on privately held oyster leases or for oyster vessels engaging in any activities unrelated to the commercial taking of oysters from the public natural reefs or oyster seed grounds.

In 2011, the Legislature — through Act 266 — revised and amended Act 922 to give LDWF the authority to establish a vessel monitoring system. But state lawmakers limited the department’s authority to track, collect and use the VMS data on only those “vessels taking oysters for commercial purposes under the authority of the oyster seed ground vessel permit,” the suit contends.

The oystermen say the VMS units are wired directly into each vessel’s battery system “without any means for the vessel owner or operator to disconnect or power down the VMS equipment at any time.”

“As installed, the VMS equipment collects and transmits data at all times regardless of the vessel’s location,” the suit alleges.

The case has been assigned to state District Judge Kay Bates.