Dockside inspections aim to reduce risk in Maine's commercial fishing industry
PORTLAND — Commercial fishing and Maine are synonymous.
Lobsters are printed on T-shirts, tourism brochures and plastered on the bumpers of cars. The industry has special government boards dedicated to it and monuments have been built to glorify the profession. It's woven into the fabric of the state.
It's also one of the deadliest professions in Maine and in the nation.
Of the more than half a million workers in Maine, 15 percent of the total workplace deaths in the last decade came from just 2,000 people working in the state's commercial fishing industry.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Commercial Fishing Incident Database, 36 people were killed in 26 separate incidents while fishing commercially off Maine's coast from 2000-2011. Of the total deaths, 27 were caused by vessel disasters, usually induced by flooding. And a third of the deaths occurred in the lobster fleet.
It's the same story in the region.
A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity, Boston public radio station WBUR and National Public Radio, found that from 2000 to 2009, people working in the groundfish fishery off New England and New York were 37 times more likely to die on the job as a police officer.
A 2010 report from NIOSH shows that from 2000-2009, 165 commercial fishermen were killed while fishing off the East Coast, making the region more deadly than Alaska, which had 133 deaths.
Despite these high death rates, government and industry have been slow to enact regulations that address the dangers of the commercial fishing.
But now, a new federal law that goes into effect Oct. 16 may help stem that grim tide, U.S. Coast Guard officials hope.
For the first time, commercial fishing vessels that operate three or more miles from the coast will be required to undergo a dockside examination by the Coast Guard. Changes to the standards those boats have to meet in the examinations are being developed, but will likely not be implemented for another few years.
This is the first action to come from the U.S. Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2010. Up until now, these examinations have been voluntary.
Kevin Plowman, a Coast Guard inspector in Maine, estimated that of 2,400 vessels that fall under the new law, only about 20 percent of the fleet is currently examined.
Plowman said although the exams do not impose any new regulations, he thinks they will help improve safety for commercial fishermen.
"It certainly is a step in the right direction," he said. "What we want to know is, do you have the equipment to survive if something happens? We look at it a partnership with the fishermen."
Besides Plowman, there is only one of the inspector for the Coast Guard's 1st District, which covers Maine and part of New Hampshire. Although another inspector is expected this fall, Plowman admitted it will be difficult to get all the inspections done before Oct. 16.
"Can you do 2,000 exams in a month and a half?," he said. "No, but we're going to do the best we can."
The Coast Guard can board a vessel at any time three or more miles out from shore, Plowman said, but they look only for proper safety equipment, such as flares and life jackets, not necessarily at the integrity of the boat.
"If you do it dockside, its easier to complete the exam than if you get boarded out there by the Coast Guard," he said. "All your stuff is in order already and you don't have to worry about it."
Under current federal law, fishing vessels must carry an emergency position-indicating radio, known as EPIRB; a lifeboat or life float; a flare kit; life jackets or immersion suits; a ring buoy; a fire extinguisher; a sound producing device and running lights. The at-sea inspections by the Coast Guard for such equipment, described as “voluntary,” will now become mandatory.
Elliot Thomas, a lobstermen from Yarmouth and board member of the Maine Lobster Fishing Safety Council, has been having the dockside inspections for years.
"The exam showed me down to where things will chafe," he said. "They do a remarkably fine job of getting people going. They actually work with you to make sure everything is ready to go."
He said that it goes beyond what someone might think of in terms of immediate safety needs – for example, showing how the routing of a wire might be improved.
Jennifer Lincoln, director of the NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office and chief of the agency's Commercial Fishing Safety Research and Design Program, said there are three key steps that can be taken to improve safety for people who fish commercially.
She recommended all people working on the boats take an eight-hour marine fishing safety class, have a policy for use of life jackets and find one comfortable to work in, and maintain the watertight envelope by making sure all the doors and hatches are closed when coming back to fishing grounds.
"The tagline I've been using is: 'Take the class, put one one and shut the door,'" she said. "That pretty much covers it."
In Maine, in order to get a license, a fishermen must complete a safety course, which has helped create an awareness of safety, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobsterman's Association.
"What we've tried to do is promote awareness," she said, noting that MLA offers a discounted membership if the course is completed. "But, I would say the majority of people in the industry have not participated in these safety courses."
John Drouin, 47, of Cutler, who has been fishing lobster since he was 14 years old, said the new examination will help, but it's difficult to get people to always do things safely.
"When I was younger, I was one of the ones who wasn't for the requirements and I kind of bucked things," he said. "It's one of the things you just don't like being told what to do."
Drouin has now been having the dockside inspections for about nine years, he said.
Drouin, who is the chairman of the Maine Lobster Council, and his wife, Janine, who sits on the Maine Commercial Fishing Safety Council, said they think the required examinations are a good thing.
But they also said the new regulations in the coming years could have some push-back because of the expense.
"It's a concern for everybody," Drouin said. "We have a lot of expenses on maintenance, and fishing is expensive in general. It's one of the things that discourages me."
For fishermen, Drouin said, no examination or regulation can protect you from danger; the best prevention is preparedness.
"When you're fishing, you just can't pull over to the side of the road and wait for AAA to come and get you," he said. "Accidents happen, but I don't believe in accidents. Everything is preventable."