Congress has postponed new regulations that would require fishing vessels under 36 feet to carry inflatable life rafts when going more than three miles offshore to the fishing grounds. President Obama signed the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 on February 8, 2016 and it now calls for a formal rule making process before any new regulations will go into effect. It is anticipated that the rule making process may take a year or more to complete, including a public comment period, a review period, and then codification of the final rules. For now, smaller fishing boats may still operate out to 12 miles from shore without a survival raft and larger boats can operate out to 12 miles with a buoyant device or life float.
Despite the delay in the regulations, we are hopeful that the new regulations will eventually go into place to safeguard the lives of fishermen working on smaller boats. Life rafts cost approximately $2,500 but are critical equipment in the event that the fishing vessel begins to sink. Heavy weather and wave conditions on the Pacific Coast make smaller vessels vulnerable to sinking and capsizing. It takes longer for the U.S. Coast Guard to reach fishing vessels that are sinking more than three miles offshore and life rafts will provide extra safety for crews waiting for Coast Guard rescues.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 224 fatal occupational injuries to fishermen and related fish workers over the period of 2003-2009 or approximately 32 fishermen a year. The five states with the most fatalities were Alaska (70), Massachusetts (39), Florida (29), Louisiana (25), and Oregon (25). Fishermen accounted for 30% of all fatal workplace injuries in Alaska during the period of 2003-2009. Vessel sinkings or capsized fishing vessels accounted for 53% of all fatalities. Approximately 84% of these fatalities were due to drowning. While a life raft on these fishing vessels would not have saved everyone, it certainly would have improved the crew’s change of survival. According to the data, most deaths occurred in September, October, December, and January when the fishing seasons were underway and the weather conditions severe.
In recent years, the U.S. Coast Guard has begun to impose more regulations on smaller fishing vessels in an effort to stem the tide of deaths. While many in the industry resist the cost of new life rafts, it is without question that life rafts on smaller fishing vessels save lives. We encourage the U.S. Coast Guard to act quickly to make these regulations permanent for the benefit of fishermen and their families