US family fighting to free commercial fishermen held prisoner in British Virgin Islands

A U.S. family from New Jersey is fighting to get the U.S. State Department to intervene in the imprisonment of Mike Foy, a commercial fisherman who has been held in the British Virgin Islands since 8 June.

Foy, according to a petition nearing 5,000 signatures, was waiting in the waters of Tortola for clearance to enter the island's port in order to obtain passport stamps for the crew so they could obtain clearance to Puerto Rico – a requirement of U.S. Customs. Instead, Foy was imprisoned and charged with “illegal entry and unlicensed fishing” after being told to dock his boat off the coast.

Foy was charged with illegal entry after being found in the territorial waters of the island. However, Foy claimed that he had received permission in order to get passport stamps required for some of his crew – Indonesian nationals holding C-11 transit visas. A subsequent investigation found that Foy had been denied entry due to the territory’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

USA Today reported Foy’s lawyer, Andrew Minkiewicz – a Washington-based lawyer specializing in maritime issues – told them the British Virgin Islands is claiming fish found onboard Foy’s vessel was illegally caught in island waters. However, Foy’s tracking data proves that’s not true, Minkiewicz said.

"The satellite tracking system sends a position every hour. Tortola claims he was elsewhere, which is not possible. He was six miles offshore when they claim he was one-and-a-half miles," Minkiewicz told USA Today.

Minkiewicz also said Foy was at no point in time aware he was under arrest until he arrived in the port.  

According to the petition, Foy has been denied bail, his catch has been confiscated, and he’s facing a fine of USD 511,000 (EUR 426,000) and a year of jail time. Meanwhile, his crew are stuck on the boat and barred from leaving.

The petition is calling for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to enforce the Fishermen’s Protective Act, which directs the office to intervene in cases where a U.S.-based vessel is illegally seized by a foreign government.

U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, along with Congressman Andy Kim, all Democrats representing New Jersey, wrote a letter to the deputy governor of Tortola about the incident last month, calling for a fair trial and safe treatment for Foy.

“We are aware that our constituent, Michael Foy, has been detained in Tortola and have been in communication with the State Department and the [United States] Embassy in Barbados regarding the case,” the letter states. “We will continue to closely follow Mr. Foy’s case and expect him to be treated appropriately under safe and sanitary conditions. Mr. Foy should be treated fairly, and we support a fair legal process without delay.”

However, the conditions in the jail cell are “deplorable,” the family told USA Today, and no progress has been made for his release.

"He has rats and cockroaches in his cell, so you can imagine many nights he goes without much sleep," Kimberly Foy Kelly told the publication.

John Duberg, of Land Ice and Fish based in Trinidad and Tobago, told the Miami Herald that Foy has been a customer for 15 years and has always closely followed the rules.

“It is just an atrocity that he is being jailed and imprisoned now for 30 days for an administrative kind of mix-up and accused of doing things he clearly didn’t do,” Duberg said. “He is definitely a U.S.-flagged commercial fishing boat that has all the licenses and permits to fish where he fishes.”

In addition to the petition calling for the U.S. secretary of state to intervene, the American Sword and Tuna Harvesters have also urged the government to take action to help free Mike Foy.

“The American Sword and Tuna Harvesters urge all relevant agencies of the United States government, and specifically the Department of State, to take all possible actions to obtain justice for Captain Foy,” the ASTH wrote.

As more attention is given to Foy’s plight, he’s rapidly approaching a 9 September trial that could determine whether he will face a year in a Caribbean prison.

“Mike is an American fisherman who's devoted to his boat, his crew, and the fishery,” the petition states. “So why hasn't the U.S. government pressured Tortola to release him?”  

Photo courtesy of Foy Kelly


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