SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Two fishermen who found a piece of scientific equipment off the coast of Monterey are holding it hostage, interfering with international research, and demanding $45,000 ransom for its return, the federal government claims in court.
The United States sued Daniel Sherer, Patrick Anderson and their business, A&S Fisheries, in Federal Court on Friday, accusing them of holding government property "de facto hostage" and causing irreparable harm to an international research project.
The "oceanographic mooring buoy," known as Scientific Mooring MS1, was one of several anchored to the seafloor to record data on the velocity, temperature, salinity and sediment concentration of ocean currents.
The project - an international collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey, Monterey Bay Aquarium and universities in China and the United Kingdom - will provide an "unprecedented dataset," the government says.
The monitors were to capture data throughout El Niño winter months, from October 2015 to April 2016, but researchers believe the missing monitor detached from the ocean floor during a storm on Jan. 15. It had been anchored about 300 meters deep. Other monitors were set 500 meters and 800 meters deep.
Two days after the storm, a homing beacon sent a message to USGS researchers, indicating the monitor was off the coast of Moss Landing Harbor.
On Jan. 19, Sherer informed the government he had "taken possession" of the equipment, and it was hauled away in a white pickup truck the next day, according to the lawsuit.
The government sent Sherer and Anderson a letter demanding the immediate return of the equipment on Feb. 19.
Sherer's attorney responded on Feb. 23 with a letter stating: "Daniel and A&S are the OWNERS of the equipment and that does not change no matter how many times you are ordered to say otherwise."
Sherer's response letter says the government failed to cite "any legal authority contrary to the international laws of obstruction to navigation and salvage."
Sherer estimated the value of the equipment at $400,000 but said he would cut the government a deal and sell it for less than 20 percent of that: $45,000.
Sherer also claims his business lost nine days of income, or $24,300, from "taking the big and gouging thing onto the boat" and keeping the boat out of action as the equipment was transported to shore.
But the United States says the fishermen have no right to claim possession of government property and that their holding the equipment has caused loss of critical data and irreversible harm to the research project.
The monitor was supposed to be recovered the first week of April, its data downloaded, and then returned to the ocean floor to continue taking measurements.
"Any samples remaining after handling by defendants may not be useable for scientific research because of improper handling by such untrained persons," the government states in its 24-page complaint.
It accuses the fisherman of conversion and seeks an injunction to reclaim the equipment.
David Sherer, of Vista, who was admitted to the California Bar in 1965 and calls himself "an old trial dog" in his letter to the government, represented the fishermen but has since withdrawn. David Sherer is plaintiff Daniel Sherer's father.
The elder Sherer told Courthouse News he has withdrawn as his son's attorney for "private" reasons but that he still thinks the government's position is wrong.
"Salvage law's been established for hundreds of years covering all the oceans," David Sherer said. "This claim that the government just owns everything forever and there's no such thing as salvage, that's complete bull."
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