COMMERCIAL fishing is by far the country's most dangerous occupation. Taking 112 lives per 100,000 workers each year, it easily outstrips the second worst killer, logging, which kills 86. Fishing would be less deadly if the Coast Guard could mandate safety examinations of fishing vessels before they leave the dock, but fiercely independent fishermen have resisted attempts at this. It is high time for the industry and the Coast Guard to sit down and agree on a safety program that could save lives without creating costly or cumbersome hurdles.
A bill granting the Coast Guard the explicit authority to do mandatory dockside examinations was attached to the service's budget authorization last year. It passed the House overwhelmingly, but the Senate never approved similar legislation, leaving the safety provision high and dry. Under the House proposal, Coast Guard officers could examine fishing vessels at least twice in each five-year period.
The bill would also require a training program for the operators of fishing boats, though it would allow some credit for past experience. The bill calls for two grant programs, one for the training and another for research on fishing safety.
The Coast Guard already conducts voluntary dockside examinations, issuing safety decals for vessels that pass them. In New England, many operators choose to undergo these tests: The National Marine Fisheries Service requires the decals on any vessels carrying its observers for compliance with rules affecting the groundfish, scalloping, and herring fisheries.
Nationally, however, just a small fraction of all vessels undergo examinations. Opposition is especially strong in Alaska, where Mark Vinsel, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, complains that mandatory examinations inconvenience the operators of boats docked in small ports lacking access by either road or air.
Vinsel notes that in Alaska, fatalities among crabfishing crews fell after fishery management rules changed to a "catch-share" system. This allows boat operators more discretion in deciding when to go out, sparing them the risk of severe weather. Similar changes in fishery management are gaining a foothold in New England as well.
Congress last legislated fishing safety rules in 1988. That law includes ambiguous language that some believe already gives the Coast Guard the authority to do mandatory dockside examinations. Since there is resistance to the examinations, however, the Coast Guard is justified in asking for more explicit power. If the service's officers are going to be seen as bad guys, the least Congress can do is leave no doubt that vessel examiners have the law clearly on their side.