By Commander Chris Woodley
Chief, Prevention Department
USCG Sector Seattle
The signing of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 was a watershed moment for fishing vessel safety and fishery management. Provisions within the Act mandate regular examination of vessels that operate beyond three nautical miles, upgrading of safety training requirements, and most importantly for Bering Sea fishermen, amending the American Fisheries Act (AFA) to allow for new construction of AFA catcher and catcher processor vessels. This, along with recent similar actions recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that allow for new construction of Amendment 80 vessels, and recent passage of legislation to permit formation of a cooperative in the freezer-longline sector, have removed the most significant barriers to long-term safety improvements for commercial fishermen in the Bering Sea.
For newly constructed fishing, fish tender, and fish processing vessels, the Act establishes rigorous safety standards. Specifically, vessels over fifty feet in length built after July 1, 2012 will be required to constructed and maintained to state of the art safety standards as established by vessel classification societies. Vessels greater than 79 feet must also meet the hull and watertight integrity requirements of loadline. While financing of new construction remains problematic at this time for larger vessels, naval architects are nevertheless drawing plans for the newest generations of Bering Sea catcher and catcher processors.
The Act also provides significant safety improvement options for vessel owners who, for a variety of reasons, may decide against building new vessels, but instead choose to maintain or convert their existing vessels. For existing vessels, alternate safety and compliance programs will be developed jointly with the Coast Guard by 2017 (2012 for vessel conversions). These safety programs will be designed to address specific safety concerns on a regional and gear / fishery / geographic basis. The first alternate compliance and safety program (ACSA), pioneered in 2006 by the BSAI freezer longline and Amendment 80 catcher processor fleets, has clearly demonstrated the significant flexibility, collaboration and partnership that is achievable between the Coast Guard and the fishing industry.
ACSA has also demonstrated that the repairs and needed work on these older vessels may be extensive, and that early planning and a long lead time are essential to mitigating operational and financial impacts. Additionally, ACSA has shown that it will take considerable work and commitment to bring shipyards, welding crews, and vendors up to speed with the Coast Guard quality expectations for equipment and machinery installations, hull repairs and vessel stability work. It is for these reasons that Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound is already engaging various BSAI fishing fleets to begin discussions on how to move forward with their own alternate compliance programs, well ahead of the 2017 Congressionally mandated deadlines.
Finally, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, the Coast Guard Authorization Act is also a subtle but nevertheless convincing triumph of management philosophies applied to Bering Sea fisheries. Political leaders and policy makers are moving away from anachronistic fishery management practices which place a higher value on vessel inefficiency (unrealistic vessel size limits, maintaining old hulls until total loss, etc.). Instead, through the allowance of new construction, the Act embraces the belief that the fishery management policies of catch shares, IFQs, rationalization and co-ops are not only viable, but when properly enforced, are sufficiently robust to protect the fishery resource, promote economic stability, and prevent over-capitalization while simultaneously embracing appropriate safety standards. This is the true triumph of the Coast Guard Authorization Act.