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Advocates decry holes in safety net for Maine fishing industry

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Advocates decry holes in safety net for Maine fishing industry

PORTLAND — Advocates said they were baffled when one of the first serious attempts at improving fishing industry safety was stripped down in an annual act passed quietly last month.

The U.S. Coast Guard Re-authorization Act of 2010 provision requiring all commercial fishing vessels operating more than three miles from the coast to have dockside inspections by Oct. 16, 2012, was extended to Oct. 15, 2015, by the latest 2012 act, which became law on Christmas Eve.

The revision also extends the amount of time required between inspections from two years to five.

"It was a major surprise to me," said Eliott Thomas, a Yarmouth lobsterman and board member of the Maine Lobster Fishing Safety Council. "I thought they might delay it, but this is just like emasculating for safety. "

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.

Five years between inspections for those items doesn't make sense, said Gerald Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, who chaired a national board that recommended the two-year schedule.

"The impact on safety is not good when you consider much of the survival and safety equipment have lifespans for maintenance that's less than that," Dzugan said. "If you only have required exams every five years, that's a lot of people fishing with gear that's outdated and hasn't been inspected."

Commercial fishing is the deadliest industry in Maine, and in the country.

In Maine, deaths on the job in the fishing industry make up 15 percent of workplace deaths in the last decade. The number is especially striking considering that of the more than half a million workers in Maine, only 2,000 make their livings in commercial fishing.

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.

NIOSH found commercial fishing most dangerous in the Northeast.

An August investigation 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.

The inspections currently only search for equipment and don't regulate the boat's integrity. Changes to the standards boats would have to meet in the inspections are still being developed and will likely not be implemented for another few years.

The original mandate was the first action to come from the 2010 re-authorization act, requiring vessels to be inspected before being allowed to fish. In the past, the inspections were voluntary.

The U.S. Coast Guard can still board boats at sea and would have required them to carry the proper safety equipment by the mid-October deadline if the time frame wasn't extended.

Thomas said larger vessels fishing off the West Coast would be most impacted by the potential new standards and lobbied for the new timeframes.

Although death tolls continue to mount, government and industry have been slow to act, with this latest move prolonging already overdue regulations, Dzugan said.

"I think Congress was misinformed about the survival aspects of it and the effect that it will have," he said. "They were responding to too much pressure from industry without understanding the survival aspects. ... I think this undercuts the reason for doing it in 2010, and in terms of safety, it's ill-advised."

And, although this regulation would have helped, Thomas said, regulations alone won't make the industry less dangerous.

"Regulations will help some things, but it's more the culture," he said.  "So you have emergency suits on every boat, but you don't have drills every month or you're not wearing what you should be wearing. ... People just have to be more careful. That would go a long way to a lot of this."

That culture was evident before the loosened law took effect, with only about 30 percent, or 700 out of 2,100 boats, actually inspected by the October deadline, said Kevin Plowman, Coast Guard inspector for southern Maine and part of New Hampshire.

The low numbers were somewhat expected Plowman said, especially at this time of year, with some people not working their boats.

With the extended deadline, Plowman expects his job to slow down, but said overall, people have found the inspections helpful, even if they don't need them for a couple more years.

"The response has been good," he said. "Very, very good."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow Will on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

Commercial fishing fatalities off Maine, 2000-2011

Commercial fishing fatalities off Maine, 2000-2011
Photo: NIOSH Commercial Fishing Incident Database