Coast Guard seeks exemption for local fishermen

by Angela Denning-Barnes on April 5, 2012

When the U.S. Coast Guard checked out small commercial fishing boats last summer in the Bering Sea, they found that local fishermen didn’t have survival suits, which are required by law. However, they also saw that the suits would be impractical and other safety measures were needed.

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Federal laws currently require an immersion suit for every person in the boat-no matter what size the boat is-when fishing outside of a river. The full body suits are designed to keep a person warm and floating if they went into the water.

However, in the Bering Sea off of the Y-K Delta, this law is not being followed and isn’t practical either.

Ken Lawrenson, Commercial Fishing Safety Coordinator with the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska, said there is simply not enough room in many small boats to store the suits in a clean and dry area.

“The survival suit is not the best fit from a safety and survival point of view,” he said. “My concern having looked at a lot of the boats is that survival suit is going to get placed where the fish and fishing gear, where the batteries for the engines, where the gas tanks and oil are going, and so even if you had a suit, it’s not going to be well protected, it’s not going to be well maintained, and so when it’s needed, if it’s needed, it’s not going to perform as it’s designed to do.”

Lawrenson spoke in a recent teleconference with dozens of fishermen in Kuskokwim coastal villages.

Lawrenson told the fishermen that he was not only concerned about the storage of the suits in a small boat but that they were impractical as well.

“Three or four crew on an 18 foot open skiff are going to be unable to put on their immersion suits in an emergency before they would have to go into the water,” he said.

So, if the suits are impractical, but they are required by law, what are fishermen supposed to do?

Lawrenson said he is working on an exemption just for small boat fishermen that would require other safety measures instead of the suits. That would include everyone on a boat wearing a PFD and one of those people wearing a personal locator beacon.

“When you activate the personal locator beacon. . .it sends its latitude and longitude as well as its unique identifying number to a satellite,” Lawrenson said.

That information gets relayed to the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Juneau. Lawrenson said it usually takes four or five minutes. He said it would take the Coast Guard about 6 to 7 hours to respond to such a signal from their post in Kodiak, so instead, they would contact local search and rescue groups to respond locally.

The beacons run between $250 and $450.

Lawrenson said the exemption will probably take a few years to get on the books and implemented, but regionally based fishing groups, such as Coastal Villages Seafoods could seek such an exemption before then. The Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation already signed on to one in January.

Lawrenson said this new effort follows last year’s deadly summer when 8 commercial fishermen died in open skiffs around Alaska.

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