Coast Guard position on safety surprises many who toil at sea


Kirk Moore and Allison Garvey
The ASbury Park Press

Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page

April 11, 1999 

The long-awaited release of a Coast Guard report on fishing vessel safety surprised fishermen and safety advocates alike with the scope of its recommendations.

But just how many of those ideas come to pass -- from designing new lifejackets to licensing captains -- depends in large part on how they are received by commercial fishermen.

So far, area fishermen don't have a lot of good things to say about the report that was prompted by five sinkings and 11 deaths this winter.

"When the Coast Guard says they want to make fishing no more dangerous than other marine professions, what's the 'rest of the marine industry' ? Five-hundred-foot freighters? This is crazy. We're small boats," said James Lovgren, a trawler captain and president of the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach.

Fishermen agree there are some good ideas in the report by a special Coast Guard task force, released last week.

They say there must be better common training between Coast Guard vessel examiners, who help captains with voluntary dockside safety checks, and Coast Guard boarding officers who stop fishing vessels at sea. Fishermen and safety examiners alike tell stories of boarding officers often tying up fishermen for hours, and sometimes writing them violations, for safety issues the captains and examiners thought they had resolved back at the dock.

Fishermen would like more help with safety training seminars. Most say larger, organized classes and seminars once or twice a year would be far more preferable and useful than the current demand for each crew to hold its own monthly emergency drills.

Cape May fisherman and instructor Erling Berg says he's scheduled two sessions this spring because of fishermen's heightened attention to safety.

But there's scorn, too, for what many fishermen say are recommendations that seem to ignore their own experience and common sense.

"They'd have us wearing bicycle helmets out there," one groused. 

Behind the tart remarks, there is worry -- about the potential financial costs of meeting new regulations, and that safety limitations could be a new whip, along with fishery conservation measures, that drive older, underfunded fishing boats out of business.

"It's like the National Marine Fisheries Service said to the Coast Guard, 'We can get rid of half of the boats. Can you get rid of the other half?' " Lovgren said.

Unlike many fishermen, Lovgren said the Coast Guard's proposal to license fishing captains "might not be a bad idea" -- but only if it's done in a way that credits fishermen for their experience on the water.

Mandatory inspections are another matter, Lovgren said: "I have a wooden boat that's 30 years old and hasn't sunk yet. If it does flood, it will stay awash. It won't sink like a rock the way steel will. But would it pass inspection?"

Members of Congress whose districts include fishing ports reacted cautiously to the report, applauding some recommendations for better safety equipment and training, but stressing they will listen to what fishermen say about the big-ticket issues, like licensing and inspection, that won't go anywhere without Congressional approval.

Task force members noted political reality in their report, by ranking recommendations two ways -- by the safety benefit each one offers, and by the ease of implementing them.

The easiest step is offering fishermen more help in setting up and maintaining their automatic life saving equipment. That might have saved a couple of men from the clam boat Adriatic when it went down Jan. 18 off Long Beach Island, and its radio beacon never deployed because of a faulty release.

Mandatory safety inspections are the toughest to achieve, the report says. Depending on what shipbuilding codes are adopted under such a rule, many boats could be forced to retire, says former captain Rick Savage, a clam industry consultant and task force advisor.

And there's not much of a market for old, dequalified fishing boats, Lovgren noted. One wooden boat owner he knows was quoted a price of $25,000 just to dispose of an old wooden trawler, he added.

Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J., whose district includes Cape May, says the House subcommittee on the Coast Guard is certain to hold hearings on the task force report in the coming months.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said he would thoroughly review the recommendations in his capacity as a member of the House Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans. He said he will also try to have a field hearing on the issue, which would be held in New Jersey.

"This is an extremely important issue for the Jersey Shore, and it is imperative that we hear from all sides before enacting new policies," Pallone said in a press release.

Rep. H. James Saxton, R-N.J., also intends to carefully review the recommendations, said a spokesman in Saxton's office.

"Anything that will increase safety is obviously a good thing," said Jeff Sagnip-Hollendonner. "We intend to look at the ideas and consider their impact, but it sounds like a very good idea."

The recommendations seem to be just sinking on the west coast as well. Alaskan and Seattle-based fishermen's associations representatives said this week they were still absorbing the report.

Arnie Thompson, of the Alaska Crab Coalition, said the crab fleet has adapted to previous regulations and already operates under more stringent insurance requirements than Coast Guard regulations. Rather than more rules, he said, the crab fleet needs a review of the quota system that regulates access to the fishery.

"There have been some big improvements to vessels here to make better, safer boats, with some of the vessel owners spending three-quarters of a million (dollars) to $1 million," Thompson said. "Legislating more regulations could very well result in putting independent vessel owners, of which most of the crab fleet are, out of business. More regulations will just result in the demise of the independent fisherman and turn the industry over to large fishing corporations who would be buying up bankrupt vessels."

[Link to full CG ReportFor entire report]


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