Presumptions of guilt

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would expand the universe of vessels that must be equipped with automatic identification systems, more commonly referred to as AIS, to include fishing boats 65 feet in length and longer. In addition, AIS would be required in all navigable U.S. waters.

The agency says the new rules will "improve navigation safety, enhance the ability to identify and track vessels, and heighten our overall maritime domain awareness, and thus help us address threats to maritime transportation and security."

Touting AIS as a means of achieving navigational safety is disingenuous. Anyone who can't navigate safely with GPS and radar is beyond redeeming with AIS.

AIS is all about homeland security. The question is, will this achieve it? According to the Coast Guard, more than 17,000 vessels would be required to install AIS under the proposed rule. OK, so the Coast Guard would then know where each of them was. Now what? What about the 17,0002 boats (OK, that's an exaggeration) 64 feet 11 inches and under?

No one is opposed to national security, but at some point we need to realize there's a level of risk we're going to have to live with.

I don't believe it's defined by vessels 65 feet in length. Does that mean that at some point we'll be talking about installing AIS on much smaller boats than that?

You bet it does.

Risk and possibility are not the same thing. The fact that a vessel of a certain size could be used a certain way doesn't mean that it will or, more to the point, that we can guard against that eventuality.

Moreover, there is question of economics. How much money will be represented in 17,000 vessels equipped with AIS and the infrastructure and manpower to manage the system? What are the ongoing operational costs? Who will pay them?

It's all well and good to say, "We must have national security at any price." Sooner or later, though, someone has to come up with the money.

Speaking of coming up with the money, those of you whose vessels have four feet or more of freeboard are looking at shelling out up to $1,500 for Coast Guard–approved pilot ladders for use by boarding parties.

NOAA points out that federal law has required "safe" boarding ladders for Coast Guardsmen to use during at-sea inspections since 1988. The new rule, in effect Jan. 1, 2009, creates a standard of safety.

By the way, for the purpose of this rule, the freeboard is not the distance from the water to the deck, which would let a lot of small-boat operators off the hook, but the distance "between the top rail of the gunwale and the water's surface," which conceivably could bag seine skiff operators.

I can think of nothing but good things to say about the Coast Guard. Nevertheless, this new rule is an example of what happens once the camel gets his nose into the tent: Fishermen have become so accustomed to the idea of boarding parties that they are now willing to calmly discuss how best to get them aboard, even if it costs nearly $1,500 for a synthetic 10-foot pilot's ladder.

My problem isn't with making life safe for boarding parties. My problem is with the boarding parties themselves. Having tried it — on a day with a mild rout, but no wind — I can tell you that climbing from a Zodiac onto a dragger in the open sea is a hazardous duty and ought to be reserved for critical situations.

Moreover, you would think that, in the post-9/11 world, the Coast Guard, as an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, would have its hands full with maritime and port security, to say nothing of its truly heroic life-saving efforts.

This is not to say there aren't occasions when boarding is a necessity. But that doesn't mean we should ask young men and women to climb from boat to boat in the frigid reaches of the northwest Atlantic and the Bering Sea, among other tracts of ocean, to check dockside inspection stickers, measure cod end meshes and count life preservers.

Of course, I'm forgetting something: there's no presumption of innocence for the American fisherman. Indeed, the only probable cause the Coast Guard needs is NOAA's rationale that if you're a fisherman, you're probably cheating.

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