By Hal Bernton, Seattle Times – September 27, 2015
The Coast Guard will require commercial fishing vessels to undergo dockside safety examinations only once every five years, a move that North Pacific industry officials are protesting as far too infrequent.
The industry officials want the exams, which become mandatory Oct. 15, to be required every two years so that the Coast Guard has a better chance of spotting torn survival suits, malfunctioning alarms and other safety problems.
Commercial fishing has long ranked as one of the most deadly occupations in the nation. Plenty of people within the industry have bridled at regulations that have come about in recent decades, so it’s unusual to have some call for tougher oversight. But the North Pacific industry officials said in their letter that the two-year interval would do a much better job of overseeing safety and could save lives.
“Once every half decade is just a really bad idea,” said Chris Woodley, executive director of the Seattle-based Groundfish Forum and a member of the Coast Guard’s Fishing Vessel Safety Advisory Committee. He is one of 15 representatives of North Pacific fishery associations and seafood companies that have signed onto the protest letter sent this month to U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft.
The Coast Guard has been conducting voluntary dockside exams for more than two decades, issuing a sticker valid for two years that states the vessel is in compliance with federal safety laws.
That sticker has become an important marker of safety for insurance companies and is now required by NOAA Fisheries before they will allow federal fishery observers aboard a vessel to monitor their catch. In their letter to Zukunft, the North Pacific industry officials credit these examinations with helping to reduce fishermen deaths off Alaska.
But in ports across the country, some fishermen have balked at letting Coast Guard teams aboard to examine their vessels. So, in 2010, Congress passed an overhaul of fishing-industry safety legislation that included a provision making examinations every two years a requirement for all commercial fishing vessels that operate more than three miles off the nation’s coast.
Then in 2012, before that part of the law took effect, Congress approved an amendment to make exams a requirement “at least once every five years.” That requirement takes effect Oct. 15.
Coast Guard officials say the wording of the 2012 legislation still gives them the power to enforce a two-year interval for the checks, but only if the agency has first developed regulations to implement the law.
So far, the Coast Guard has not issued any regulations for the 2012 law, and it’s unclear how long that will take.
In the meantime, fishing-vessel owners are free to voluntarily request a two-year examination. But the Coast Guard has concluded the agency only has the power to require examinations every five years, according to Lt. Sarah Janaro, a Coast Guard public affairs officer.
That interpretation is challenged by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who serves on a Senate subcommittee with oversight of fishing-industry safety legislation.
In a letter sent Friday to Zukunft, she said the change in the 2012 legislation was only intended to give the Coast Guard the flexibility to allow five-year exams for certain low-risk fisheries.
She called the decision to make the five-year interval the rule — rather than the exception — a “sudden and hasty policy change” that was done “without input from industry or commercial fishing vessel safety experts.”
She asked Zukunft to immediately reverse the policy.
“We cannot cut corners when fishermen’s lives are at stake,” Cantwell wrote.