Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Improving Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Through Collaboration

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine by CDR Jennifer M. Lincoln, Ph.D., National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; Mr. Charles J. Medlicott, Sector Anchorage, 17th Coast Guard District; and CDR Christopher J. Woodley, MMA, 13th Coast Guard District.

Commercial fishing in Alaska’s Bering Sea/Aleutian Island (BSAI) crab fleet has long been one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, and was popularized in the Discovery Channel’s series “The Deadliest Catch.” Stemming in part from the devastating losses of the Seattle-based crab vessels F/V Americus and F/V Altair in February 1983 (a combined total of 14 fatalities), Congress passed the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act in 1988. It provided the first Coast Guard authority to develop safety regulations for commercial fishing vessels, and focused on improving the survivability of commercial fishermen after a casualty.

However, the act provides no authority to require regularly scheduled safety compliance examinations, and commercial fishing vessels remain classified as “uninspected.” This legal framework has prompted extensive collaboration to improve safety. The regulations developed under the act require survival equipment, including life rafts, immersion suits, emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), and also some training in emergency drills and the use of this emergency equipment. These safety regulations had their intended effect in Alaska commercial fisheries, which experienced a 67 percent decline in total commercial fishing deaths and a 38 percent decline in the commercial fishing fatality rate from 1990 to 1999. However, the shellfish fisheries in Alaska had the highest fatality rate of all fisheries in the state.

The Bering Sea/Aleutian Island crab fleet, which figured so prominently in the development of the safety legislation and regulations, continued experiencing staggering losses. During the 1990-1999 crab seasons, an average of eight lives were lost annually. In October 1999, an innovative regional safety program focusing on the prevention of vessel loss was developed to address the hazards of this dangerous fishery.

Stability Check
To address this, the “At the Dock Stability and Safety Compliance Check” was cooperatively established through a partnership of the 13th and 17th Coast Guard Districts, the Alaska Crab Coalition, the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Alaska Field Office, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G).

The Bering Sea/Aleutian Island crab industry leadership was very receptive to this kind of program because it placed a high value on safety and responsible vessel operations and endorsed the program, offering strong support to senior USCG leadership through numerous public forums.

To execute the program, USCG personnel joined with ADF&G to conduct tank checks in multiple ports. While ADF&G personnel conducted tank checks, the USCG reviewed vessel loading and stability issues with the master and checked for overloading. Operating in this manner, the ADF&G/USCG team would be on each vessel for a total of 10-15 minutes.

Casualty Rates/SAR Cases
Since the beginning of the crab rationalization program in August 2005, there continue to be no vessel losses for vessels participating in the rationalized crab fisheries (though on January 6, 2009, after preparation of this article, the first fatality in the BSAI crab fishery occurred on the F/V Seabrooke due to a fall overboard. This was the first fatality in this fishery since January 2005).

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