BELFAST, Maine — Offshore fishing is the most dangerous job in the nation, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, and nowhere is it more dangerous than in the Northeast.
A recent report by Boston public radio station WBUR, National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity found that in the period from 2000 to 2009, those 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 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 Coast Guard inspection. Changes to the standards those boats have to meet in the inspection are being developed for implementation in the coming years.
WBUR, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity reported that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that “70 percent of [Northeast groundfishing] deaths and those in the second-deadliest fishery, Atlantic scallops, followed disasters such as a vessel catching fire, capsizing or sinking.”
The other deaths came from falling overboard and onboard injuries such as being struck by overhead equipment.
Maine boat emergencies
The frequency of emergencies aboard fishing vessels far from shore is compelling, with more than 70 emergencies in the Northeast region reported to the Coast Guard since June 1.
Among those, according to the Coast Guard statistics, were a fire aboard a boat south of Halfway Rock in Maine waters on June 22; a capsized lobster boat near the mouth of the Saco River on June 29; a report of a man overboard near Isle of Shoals on July 18; boats that sank near the Saco River on July 26, near Hog Island in Maine waters on July 29 and near Jonesport on Aug. 9; and a vessel aground on York Ledges on Aug 17.
For decades, the standards for commercial fishing vessels have been different from those for commercial passenger vessels such as ferries, excursion boats and whale watch vessels. Passenger vessels have to be inspected annually by the Coast Guard, said Kevin Plowman, who will do the inspections of fishing vessels when the new law goes into effect.
Currently, fishing boats are inspected at random, such as when a Coast Guard vessel stops the boat at sea.
New federal law
The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 stipulated that any commercial fishing vessel — whether in the groundfish, lobster, gill net or scallop industry — that operates three or more miles from shore must be inspected every two years. In Maine and New Hampshire, which are part of the Coast Guard’s first district, some 2,400 vessels fall under the new law.
“We will drive to where you tie up,” Plowman said, and conduct the required inspection. Plowman, who works from Portland, and one other inspector, Garry Moores who works out of Belfast, are responsible for the inspections.
“Obviously, we’re not going to be able to inspect every boat before Oct. 16,” Plowman said, though the Coast Guard plans to hire a third inspector to work from Rockland, and Coast Guard officers and the Coast Guard Auxiliary are expected to help out.
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.
“It’s been talked about for years,” Plowman said of the new law. “I know there were some pushes from different groups.”
Under the 2012 Coast Guard Authorization Act, regulatory agencies are empowered to begin making rules that may make the inspection standards more strict, he said.
Support for safety
Though fishermen often are quick to criticize new regulations, this change may not be as hard to take as might be thought.
“It kind of became almost mandatory for the groundfishing fishery and gill netters,” Plowman said, as more and more vessels in those fisheries were required to occasionally carry National Marine Fisheries Service inspectors on board. When NMFS puts an inspector on board, he said, the vessel must meet inspection standards.
Andy Mays, a lobster fisherman and scallop diver who operates from Southwest Harbor has had his boat inspected by the Coast Guard for several years because he often carries state Department of Marine Fisheries researchers.
“At first, I was like, ‘Why do I have to do this? The boat’s new, I know what I’m doing,’” he said. But now, after several annual inspections by Moores, he is an ardent supporter of the inspections and of Moores.
“He has helped people make changes that have saved lives,” Mays said.
For instance, Mays recalled having stored his survival suits below deck. Moores asked him, “If you had a fire, how would you be able to get to those?” Mays decided to find a more accessible place to store the suits.
On another inspection, Moores noted that while Mays had the required number of fire extinguishers aboard, they gave him just 30 seconds total of extinguishing capacity. “Are you comfortable with having 30 seconds of extinguishing if you have a fire miles out to sea?” Moores asked. Mays added more extinguishers to his boat.
Moores has made other suggestions which, while not required to pass inspection, are embraced by fishermen as common sense safety improvements. Mays said his fellow fishermen respect Moores and have not rankled at the coming mandatory inspections.
“It’s surprising how well accepted it is,” he said of the new law.
Moores has “looked at thousands of boats” during his Coast Guard career, Mays said. “He’s seen accidents, he’s seen loss of life.”
The new law will bring fishing boat requirements closer to those for commercial passenger vessels. Passenger vessel standards vary, Plowman said, depending on such factors as size and number of passengers.
Larger commercial vessels carrying passengers, Plowman said, such as the whale watching boats that operate from Bar Harbor, must undergo a thorough topside inspection every year and must have a licensed captain. The hull is inspected for weakness or damage every other year.
Until new standards are implemented, however, such thorough checks still will not be required of fishing boats, which are at sea in more challenging weather conditions than passenger vessels.
But as Plowman notes, “Are you going to go whale watching in a Nor’easter? Probably not.” But fishing boats often head to sea in rough weather in December to get their product to dealers in time for the high-demand Christmas and New Year holidays.
The inspections are not designed to catch fishermen breaking the rules, he said.
“A lot of what we do is training with the crew. We’ll talk about different situations and how to handle that,” Plowman said.
“We’re trying to get the word out,” he said.
Mays said the coming changes likely will see smooth sailing because most fishermen believe they will make the most dangerous job a little safer.