An autonomous monitoring transponder of the type used in the Coordinated Canyon Experiment.
All Daniel Sherer has ever wanted was for the government to pay him for a few days of lost work as a commercial fisherman after a scientific buoy suddenly popped into the path of his fishing boat in Monterey Bay on Saturday, January 15, 2016.
As he tells it, his aim isn’t to bilk the United States; he simply wants to be paid a fair amount for his lost earnings after the buoy took his boat out of commission. “I don’t need a million dollars—I just want to be compensated for my days lost,” he told Ars. “I want to be compensated for a diver going under the boat, I want to be compensated for cleaning the whole thing up, that’s it.”
As Ars reported on Monday, Sherer is the first named defendant in a lawsuit filed last week by federal prosecutors in California.
The way the government sees it, Sherer and his fishing business partner are essentially hostage-takers, as they recovered a loose United States Geological Survey buoy, claimed ownership of it, and now demand $13,000 for its return.Department of Justice lawyers have still not responded to Ars’ request for comment.
“I have no problem giving it back tomorrow—I have no problem giving it back today,” Sherer said. “Just understand that you guys need to compensate us something. We’ve lost in this deal.”
And should the government be unwilling to compensate him, would he consider suing over it? “Of course I would,” he said.
In an hour-long phone call Tuesday evening, Sherer, 39, explained to Ars that he had yet to be formally served with the lawsuit. (Ars provided him with a copy of the publicly accessible court filing.)
Sherer said that he has been a professional fisherman his entire adult life—he primarily works everywhere from the San Francisco Bay to points south. On this January day, he said, he was out in Monterey Bay fishing for hagfish (a prized Korean delicacy), which can command a high price. On his best day, he claimed he’s made $2,700 in 24 hours. (By contrast, his worst day netted him just $16.)
On that Saturday, Sherer was by himself on his boat, the 30-foot Irish, about five or six miles offshore, when the buoy suddenly appeared on the surface of the water.
“It popped up out of nowhere—it did not strike my boat at that point in time,” he said.
His first thought was that because only about 18 inches of the rugged buoy appeared on the surface, and that the bulk of its cables and moorings sat beneath the surface, it could be dangerous to other vessels.
By 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). MS1 was deployed in October 2015 to gather data about conditions in an ocean canyon during the current El Niño event.
Data would be obtained through April 2016. Once the data-gathering was complete, the buoy was designed to release itself from its seafloor anchor and send a signal so its scientific handlers could manually download its data.
The buoy was part of the Coordinated Canyon Experiment and was designed to send data to numerous scientific teams from universities worldwide.
According to the Department of Justice’s civil complaint, MS1 separated from its moorings and floated to the surface because of a storm. When Ars told Sherer this was the government’s claim, his answer was unequivocal: “Bullshit.”
“Because those were beautiful days,” he said. “I was fishing day in and day out, there was no weather—it broke free on its own.
So let’s try again.”
Indeed, a cursory check of weather record archives in the Monterey area during that time shows no record of storms.
As the Irish continued on her course after the encounter, the loose buoy’s cabling got tangled up in her propellers, and she had to limp back to shore at one knot, down from a top normal speed of 15 knots.
Sherer told Ars that he removed the buoy from the water not only because it posed a “navigational hazard,” but also because he had no choice—it had attached itself to his boat.
Upon further inspection, Sherer said he noticed a “small tag” with the letters USGS and listed a phone number. He called the number and received no immediate reply, and he also alerted the United States Coast Guard on Channel 16 VHF that he had been entangled in this buoy.
Sherer added that the USCG did not acknowledge his messages.
Once on land, Sherer spent the next few days cleaning up the buoy from the dead marine life that it had accumulated on it and its moorings. He also hired a diver to inspect the underside of his boat and disentangle the wiring that had gotten in his propeller.
Sherer is still unsure if his boat’s transmission was damaged by the buoy. While he was doing all of these things, his boat was unable to be used for commercial fishing for several days.
But it wasn’t until Tuesday, January 18, that he says anyone even acknowledged his messages—likely due to the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday the day before.
“I called the number that was on there,” Sherer added. “I called it the second I had [the buoy]. Why didn’t they call me until four days later? If it’s such a big deal, why didn’t they call me?”
On January 18, he said that a woman from the USGS arrived to meet him, along with “four to five” other people.
“She wanted the buoy,” he recalled. “I said: ‘There’s been some damage done, due to the loss of days, and time,’ and she said she’s not authorized to relinquish any money.
At that point, she said: ‘Don’t you know we’re the US government?'”
Sherer took that as a statement that the government can essentially do what it likes—a claim he found unbelievable.
“She’s not authorized to take care of anything for loss of damages, the diver, anything that I’ve lost out of it?” he questioned. “She also said ‘I’ll get the Marshals down here to come seize it,’ and I said ‘Go ahead, I would like everything documented, please do!’ In hindsight I would have rather handed it over and then sent them my bill.”
When Sherer informed his father, David Sherer, an attorney, of what happened, the elder man took up the case.
But on Sunday, Daniel apparently fired his own father because he felt that David Sherer—by his own admission, not an expert in maritime law—was asking the government for a ridiculous amount of money in the hopes of bargaining them down to $13,000.
In one of his early letters to government lawyers, David Sherer asks for $400,000 in compensation, and later $40,000. “I seriously cried looking at my father, saying ‘what the fuck are you doing?'” David Sherer told Ars, saying that the rift between him and his father has been difficult. “You don’t even know how much stress this has put me under, more than you can even imagine.”
However, Sherer acknowledged that he is still in possession of the buoy—nearly 10 weeks after the incident—but again, he was cagey with where, exactly.
“I’m having to pay to store it—that amount isn’t really a nominal amount,” he said, declining to get into specific figures.
And why is he still holding the buoy? Sherer still wants the government to reimburse him somehow, an obviously increasingly tall order the longer the buoy isn’t back in the government’s hands.
“They want it back? Have it back tomorrow—please do, take the burden off my back—but understand that we need to be compensated for it,” he said.