The Fishing Industry Will Never Be Safer Than It Is Today

By Alan Dujenski

Safety in the fishing industry supposedly took a major leap forward in the early 1990’s with the implementation of regulations spawned from the Fishing Vessel Safety Act of 1988. If my calculations are correct, that would be about 30 years ago. I could start out sugar-coating how well we have been doing safety-wise but I won’t – I think we need to take a cold hard look at safety in the industry. Why do I believe that the commercial fishing industry has maxed out and is on the decline from a safety perspective? Here are the indicators I see – you can be the judge yourself:

The Coast Guard
1. September 11th events have refocused Coast Guard efforts and energies on port and vessel security. This is taking an enormous bite out of financial and personnel resources as well as leadership attention. There are pockets of Coast Guard Units around the country that are still carrying on business as usual, but these are very limited.

2. Over the past decade the Coast Guard has continued its stance of not keeping industry informed of problems with safety equipment including liferafts (primarily servicing problems) and EPIRBS (failures of equipment and problems with the satellite systems). Additionally, besides the lack of a notification program, there is no recall program for problematic safety equipment.

3. Failure of Coast Guard to develop any meaningful focus for promoting safety in the industry. Coast Guard ignored all input from the “listening sessions” held throughout the country last year and after almost 15 years is still calling for studies and then ignoring them when they get them.

4. The Coast Guard has developed no enforcement posture regarding safety training and drills on board vessels after more than a decade, but they have made sure that you lock your overboard valve from Marine Sanitation Devices.

5. Coast Guard investigations of casualties continue to miss important issues and the results are rarely reported as Lessons Learned. If the results of the investigation are made available it takes sometimes as much as two or more years after the incident.

6. The Coast Guard has done very little to promote the third party examination of fishing vessels (marine surveyors). The Coast Guard has actually chosen to promote safety exams conducted by the Coast Guard Auxiliary and state Recreational boat agencies over marine surveyors.

7. In spite repeated promises to simplify and clarify the original regulations no effort has been made over the past decade to do so. If regulations are hard to read people will find compliance difficult.

The Fishing Industry
1. In spite of 30 years the regulations in place, the industry continues to have very poor compliance with even the basic requirements. According to the Coast Guard’s own information, which is corroborated by reports from marine surveyors, about 40 percent of EPIRBS and 35 percent of liferafts were not in compliance on vessels that crab in Alaska. The percentage for other vessels seem to follow the same trend nationwide.

2. Nationwide it is estimated only about 10 percent of the vessels are conducting drills on a monthly basis, and of those, about half are doing them correctly.

3. A high percentage of survival suits are not being maintained, and there is very little assurance that suits fit the various crewmembers.

4. High water alarms are not being tested regularly, and when broken are not replaced or repaired in a timely fashion.

5. Watertight doors and hatches are not being maintained and kept closed at sea.

6. Liferafts and EPIRBS are not being mounted in locations for easy access for manual launching.

7. There are a dwindling number of fishing industry personnel taking advantage of training classes. Exceptions seem to be the larger vessels.

8. The Coast Guard invested a lot of money and resources into providing damage control training modules nationwide along with ship stability models and few industry members have taken advantage of these free teaching aids.

9. The industry is being faced with a shortage of qualified crewmembers. The past draw for big money-making has declined and as a result more and more vessel operators are having to hire less-than-desirable folks to fill these positions.

10. Economics of the industry are resulting in less money being expended for vessel maintenance, crew training and purchase of more up-to-date safety equipment.

The Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Advisory Committee (CFVIAC)
1. In spite good intentions, the committee continues down the road of being ineffective. Committee members have done very little to communicate with the people they are representing and have failed to keep the industry advised as to what has transpired during the meetings with the Coast Guard.

2. Rather than being in an advisory capacity to the Coast Guard on regulatory and safety issues, they have been relegated to being tasked with performing the Coast Guard’s own grunt work. For a committee that is comprised of individuals donating their own time and money to be on this committee, and meeting only once or twice a year, this appears to be a great waste of a valuable resource.

Training Scholarships
1. Many institutions have set aside funds to pay for all or part of training costs for drill instructor training, survival at sea, stability, firefighting, etc. In recent years much of this money has gone unused.

Marine Surveyors
1. The lack of Coast Guard interaction and program involvement with the marine surveyors has allowed this valuable resource to go untapped. Fewer and fewer surveyors are conducting safety surveys.

2. Marine surveying organizations have done little to ensure quality and competence of those authorized to conduct safety examinations.

3. Fewer marine surveyors are entering the field, increasing the average age to 60 or older. In a few years there will be few available to do competent surveys.

The bottom line is that all parties involved have become complacent and there is a quickening down this road. On the present course within five years the overall safety will return to the pre-1990 level with increased loss of life. The present regulations do very little to promote vessel safety. A look at the statistics will show that the number of lives saved had increased over the past few decades, but the number and type of casualties has remained relatively the same. A major change in attitude by all involved is needed if we hope to curb the present trend. Maybe we should also be asking ourselves if the Coast Guard is still capable of taking the leadership role necessary to promote safety in the industry. The Coast Guard’s solution to safety appears to be, “let’s study it.” Since the 1980’s the Coast Guard conducts a national study/conference about every 5 years and then sets the results aside. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will be sponsoring the next study group in October (, but I’m sure the local Coast Guard and your Advisory Committee member have already made you aware of this.

I think it is a crying shame that the fishing industry needs outsiders and do-gooders to make our vessels safe. Who has more at stake than the crews of these vessels? Who should be setting the standards for safety if not the men and women on these vessels? For the life of me I can’t figure out why people will have thousands of dollars of safety equipment around them and have no idea of how to use it or maintain it. Heck for $5 you can buy a nice St. Christopher medal and it might be more beneficial.

If you think I am wrong, please write the Fishermen’s News and show me the error of my thoughts, and please share specific examples. This is one time I hope I am wrong.