Major Fleets in North Pacific Urge Coast Guard to Keep 2-Year Inspection Cycle

By Peggy Parker, – October 16, 2015

Twelve of the largestcommercial fishing fleets in the North Pacific, representing over a thousand vessels supporting over 10,000 fishermen, have urged the Coast Guard to keep a 20-year policy to require a dockside safety exam every two-years.

Their pleas have landed on deaf ears. Their most recent letter of September 14 has been unanswered.

On August 18, the Coast Guard notified fishing fleets of the change in policy, which became effective on October 15.

“There is a 30-year history of the Coast Guard and fishermen collaborating in the North Pacific fisheries to make this industry safer,” the letter to Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Zukunft, says. “The vibrant safety programs we enjoy today were built upon the losses of loved husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters.

“It would be ironic and tragic if the policies that achieved these hard fought gains were to be discontinued by the very agency tasked with promoting fishing vessel safety.”

The authors say the shift in policy will reverse a multi-decade trend in safety improvements.

Since the development of Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988 in the early 1990’s, fatalities in Alaska have dropped by over 74% more than any other place in the United States.

The number of fatalities reached a peak of 37 per year in 1992. In 2014, there were 7 fatalities.

The letter pointed out that a variety of factors are behind this dramatic reduction of fatalities. “Vessel owners and fishermen embracing safety culture, development of specific safety programs and interventions directed at high-risk fisheries, the rationalization of major fisheries in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska, and the availability of a robust network of vessel safety training organizations such as the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners Association and the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association,” the authors explained.

But the fleet managers stated “one of the most important reasons for the decline of fatalities has been the Coast Guard’s presence in conducting dockside exams and its adaptation of a two-year cycle for exam decals. It is this regular, one-on-one interaction with fishermen that is saving lives.”

The two-year exam cycle was adopted by the Coast Guard in the early 1990’s. It is part of vessel insurance policies / risk assessment as well as the State of Alaska and NMFS observer programs.

“Fishery observers have been a critical element in ensuring safety on fishing vessels,” the authors pointed out. “Observers are required to spot check primary lifesaving equipment prior to the vessel sailing. As virtually all safety equipment (life rafts, hydrostatic releases, EPIRB batteries, flares, fire extinguishers, etc.) will expire between exams on a five-year exam cycle, this will create additional pressures for observers to become the de facto safety compliance official as the Coast Guard reduces their own interactions with the fleet.”

Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum and one of the signers to the letter, described the many small but important things that can affect the vessel’s operation and the crew’s survival.

“Whether it’s a leaking shaft seal, a malfunctioning high water alarm, a frozen dog, the improper installation of a life raft, or a slight tear in an immersion suit, these individual items added together can result in catastrophic vessel loss with fatalities,” he warned.

“The key of the Coast Guard’s dockside exam program was to have sufficient presence and expertise to detect these individual problems before they contributed to a larger problem,” he said.

The letter is signed by Mark Gleason, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers; Stephanie Madsen, At-Sea Processors Association; Chris Woodley, Groundfish Forum; Bob Kehoe, Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association; Brent Paine, United Catcher Boats; Inge Andreassen, American Seafoods Company; Julie Bonney, Alaska Groundfish Data Bank; David Harsila, Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association; Jerry Dzugan, Alaska Marine Safety Education Association; Bob Alverson, Fishing Vessel Owners Association; Karen Conrad, North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners Association; Joe Plesha,Trident Seafoods; Chad See, Freezer Longline Coalition; Lisa Terry, Alaska Independent Tendermen’s Association; and Bob Krueger, Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association.