Industry has seen a rise in lost vessels and fatalities this year

Fishing vessel losses and fatalities are down over the past few years, says Jack Kemerer, who after 12 years with the Coast Guard’s Fishing Vessel Safety Division, including the past eight years as head of the department, retired on Oct. 13.

The commercial fishing industry seemed to always be at the head of the pack when rating occupations by the highest risk factor. But in the last few years, “the fishing industry has been number two or number three,” says Kemerer, “mining and logging have taken over the top spots.”

Though Kemerer allows that this year “we may see a blip” in that trend. Currently, about 30 vessels have been lost and there have been 30 fatalities.

“Last year we only had 10 fatalities,” he says. “You have to go back to 2013 before we had more than 30 fatalities.” Kemerer attributes the rise in 2017 casualties to boats going down with multiple casualties.

Jack Kemerer, former chief of the Coast Guard Fishing Vessels Division. USCG photo.

Prior to this year, several factors accounted for the fishing industry’s improved safety record. Fishing companies had “embraced the safety culture much better than they did in the past,” he says, by instituting safety programs and requirements, and taking advantage of training opportunities. That and the fact that Coast Guard fishing vessel safety officers are going aboard more boats for inspections “is making a big difference.”

Kemerer also credits the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, with its risk assessment studies as “making a big impact in the industry.”

Looking to the future, Kemerer finds a couple of things that should help to improve the industry’s safety record. “One of the big things we’ll see making a difference further down the road is mandatory dockside exams,” he says. It’s been the Coast Guard’s policy to do the dockside exams and issue a safety decal every two years. This only applied to boats fishing outside of three miles, but Kemerer says, “there are a lot of vessels operating inside that still get their exams on a voluntary basis.”

A regulation that should improve vessel safety is the class requirement applying to boats 50 feet and over and built after July 1, 2013. “But it will take awhile to see the fruits of that regulation,” says Kemerer, “because the industry is not building that many new vessels.”

Boats have gone down due to poor stability brought on by modifications after a boat was built. One of the results of building a boat over 79 feet to class standards is when it is modified it will have to meet stability requirements. “Stability would come into play to help prevent a tragedy,” says Kemerer.

Smaller boats are not impacted by that rule, but Kemerer feels, “it’s certainly an area that could be improved by owners and operators.”

Part of the same Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2012 that introduced class regulations also included the alternate safety compliance program for older boats over 50 feet. But in the future, Kemerer says, “Older vessels may have to comply with additional requirements, other than what are in the regulations.”

Kemerer and his staff were working on the regulations but it wasn’t completed. What was finalized, with the fishing industry’s input, was the Voluntary Safety Initiative and Good Marine Practices document. It’s basically a checklist and examination booklet for improving safety in older vessels.

“We put together traditional items that pretty much everyone agrees would be good to improve safety on a vessel,” says Kemerer. “But we can’t enforce it.” Eventually, he thinks that will change and regulations will come out of the document, but it will take several years.

The safety of fishing vessels and their crews is really a joint project between the government and the fishing industry. The government, as Kemerer says, “is limited in what it can do to make the vessel safer and get personnel trained because we don’t have authority for a lot of things.” But the industry “if they continue to embrace safety and recognize that the industry is a hazardous occupation, which everyone knows, they can make a difference.”

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Michael Crowley is the former Boats & Gear editor for National Fisherman.

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