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Effect of Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 on Commercial Fishing Vessels

The Congress and the President passed a new law recently, which gives the USCG the authority to replace aging ships and aircraft with modern craft, improve USCG stations and housing, train personnel, and strengthens maritime security.

Specific to the commercial fishing industry, the Act provides the USCG more authority to amend and clarify, regulate, and enforce safety standards. Vessel and equipment standards now are to be determined based on where the vessel operates, not on where it’s registered. The goal of these uniform standards is to ensure fairness and to simplify to application of regulations. The emphasis here is on safety, both to prevent accidents and to buy survival time while awaiting rescue. The amendments in the Act include the following:

Due to the high risk of hypothermia, especially miles from a coast, all commercial fishing vessels operating beyond three nautical miles (3NM) of the U.S. territorial baseline (low-water line) or beyond 3NM of Great Lakes coastline must have on board a “survival craft,” such that no part of a person is immersed in water.

The master of vessels operating beyond 3NM of baseline must keep an official log of machine maintenance and testing, crew instructions, and safety and emergency drills, as well as a record crew hours, injuries, and illnesses. Medical supplies, appropriate for the size of vessel and crew, are to be accessible on board.

At least once every two years, each fishing vessel operating beyond 3NM of baseline is to be examined dockside for safety and equipment compliance. A successful exam will result in the issuance of a Certificate of Compliance (COC). This COC must be valid and kept on board at all times, and the vessel must be kept in compliance, or else risk being sent back to port for “unsafe operation.”

Training for operators of fishing vessels operating over 3NM beyond the baseline must earn a certificate in a training course, demonstrating their knowledge of seamanship, navigation, charts, weather, maintaining vessel stability and avoiding collisions, fire safety and control, damage control, survival, emergency medical care, drills, and use of communication equipment. The certificate will be valid for five years; a refresher course will keep certification current. (Licenses are required for masters operating vessels over 200 gross tons. This certificate ensures the competency of masters of vessels less than 200 gross tons.)

There are also amendments based on overall length of a vessel. In order to ensure minimum loaded freeboard, thus addressing the safety issue of vessel overload, vessels of 79 feet or more in overall length, built after July 1, 2012, are to be assigned a load line. Additionally, a vessel built or on before July 1, 2012, which undergoes substantial dimension or vessel type modification after July 1, 2012, must comply with an “alternate load compliance program.”

A vessel of 50 or more feet in length, built after July 1, 2012, and operating over 3NM beyond baseline, must meet the classification standards set by a recognized classification society. (The USCG determines which classification society or societies will fulfill this task.) Vessels built prior to July 1, 2012, will remain in their existing class.

Vessels of less than 50 feet in overall length, built after Jan. 1, 2011, must meet equivalent minimum safety standards set for recreational vessels.

To address the safety risk of hull or equipment failure, vessels of 50 feet or more in overall length that operate beyond the 3NM baseline, are built before July 1, 2012, and are 25 years or older as of 2020, and vessels built before July 1, 2012, that have undergone “substantial change” to dimension or vessel type prior to July 1, 2012, must comply with an “alternative safety compliance program,” which includes construction standards requirements. This alternate safety compliance program is to be developed by the USCG and the fishing industry, allowing for regional and fishery differences as necessary, detailed by 2017, and in force by 2020.

This Act also allows crew member who face discrimination after reporting safety violations to use the Department of Labor complaint process, to which employees in other industries have long had access.

Hopefully, this attention to safety in the fishing industry, where many serious at-work injuries occur and where worker death is still the highest in the nation, will save many lives and livelihoods in future.