The U.S. Coast Guard has interpreted a CDC guideline intended to protect the public as well as transportation workers to include commercial fishing vessels. The language of the Marine Safety Bulletin issued on Feb. 1 requires the wearing of masks at all times in U.S. waters on all commercial vessels.

“Conveyance operators must use best efforts to ensure that any person on the conveyance wears a mask when boarding, disembarking, and for the duration of travel.”

I inquired as to the inclusion of commercial fishing vessels in this rule and was advised by the Coast Guard that fishing vessels are included under the rule “at this time.”

This language makes perfect sense for ferry operators, tour boats, cruise ships, and even charter vessels where crew and the public intermingle. In fact, the guideline was created to support President Biden’s executive order 13998, which was clearly written to enforce masks on public and commercial modes of transportation.

However, commercial fishing boats are not like other commercial vessels and often straddle the line between private and public. Many commercial fishing crews have gone out of their way to quarantine together or to work as a pod to reduce risk of infection or transmission of covid-19. Requiring masks when interacting with the public, crews of other vessels (including tenders), or in port is not the same as requiring them onboard at all times.

Not to mention the fact that wearing a mask in harsh weather conditions is impractical at best.

The rule exempts only children under the age of 2, a person with a disability who cannot safely wear a mask, or if the federal workplace safety guidelines exempt your specific job; as well as solitary operators if the operator is the sole occupant of the vehicle.

Exceptions to the rule include while eating or drinking, communicating with a hearing-impaired person or if unconscious.

The order does not exempt sleeping, which is especially important to note for fishing crews.

I have requested further guidance from the Coast Guard (which initially directed me to the CDC) and have reached out to federal representatives and heads of several fishing organizations.

Enforcing this rule would certainly be difficult. However, it clearly opens the door for being boarded and fined. The Coast Guard has clarified that the rule will be enforced.

Commercial fishermen who would like to offer feedback on this rule may submit comments and queries via email at [email protected].

Jessica Hathaway is the editor in chief of National Fisherman. She has been covering the fishing industry for 16 years, serves on the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's Communications Committee and is a National Fisheries Conservation Center board member.

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