, Gloucester, MA

January 13, 2009

Fishermen, advocates simmer over priorities

VMS used for policing, not for rescue, they say

By Richard Gaines

Before there was grief over the deaths of a father and father-in-law lost with their boat while fishing, in Gloucester and throughout the Ocean Nation of commercial fishermen there was aggravation and bile.

It has been induced, fishermen and advocates say, by repeated reminders to fishing families that their government was more practiced, adept at and committed to using a wondrous invention of global positioning technology to save fish from fishermen than fishermen from the sea.

In common use globally, the VMS — or vessel monitoring system — serves primarily as what fishermen derisively call their "electronic bracelets"; they face stiff sanctions for disabling their transmitters or allowing them to break down, while the VMS signals are centralized in a computer base and used by law enforcers of the seas.

These enforcers are the National Marine Fisheries Service's Office of Law Enforcement, which does much of its own enforcement work, and the Coast Guard, which also takes orders from NMFS and acts as the police in the water-based version of television's "Law and Order."

The VMS system is primarily a law enforcement tool, but countless examples abound of the secondary expectation that the information, near real-time locations, updated no less than hourly from all commercial fishing boats that operate in federal waters from Gloucester and most ports of the Gulf of Maine and George's Bank, would be lifesavingly useful as well to the Coast Guard.

Indeed, examples abound that VMS can be a lifesaver.

Sector Boston used it successfully in November to help locate a New Bedford boat and three or four men on the Costa & Corva were brought home. And in April, "using information from NMFS' VMS system, the Coast Guard was able to locate the Wild Thing 20 miles at sea off Central California, and avert another tragedy," as Coast Guard News reported.

The importance of VMS was if anything heightened here.

In the effort to enforce the complex fishing regulations of Framework 42, the latest iteration of regulatory law, based as it is on controlling time or days at sea and where fishing can be legally done, a premium was placed on locating and tracking fishing boats.

And so last year, for the first time, all boats fishing with federal, multi-species groundfish permits were required to be outfitted with VMS transmitters. The boardings by Coast Guard personnel, since the service was given unto Homeland Security, seemed to be mounting, reports fishing industry lawyer Stephen Oullette, who notes that the law enforcers seem to be particularly persnickety of late.

So there was plenty of bile long before news emerged from the search-and-rescue effort by the Coast Guard to locate and pluck Matteo Russo, 36, and John Orlando, 59, from 40-degree water 15 miles from their home port on Jan. 3 that the exercise was slowed and frustrated — and that a key problem was the inability of the Coast Guard to enter the VMS system to discover quickly where the last location of the Patriot had been recorded.

More than 21รขÑ2 hours transpired between the first report of things amiss with Patriot, from its co-owner, Josie Russo, who was also the wife of the captain, Matteo Russo, and the daughter of its mate, John Orlando.

Other complications undoubtedly contributed to the delayed call for full search-and-rescue efforts.

Capt. Gail Kulisch, commander of the Coast Guard's Boston Sector, notes the strange combination of factors facing her command structure in the minutes after Josie Russo called for help, based on her reasonable analysis of the situation:

Russo's boat and her men were out to fish for sure and inexplicably out of touch without warning just as the fire alarm system, an unusual precaution on a boat owned and operated with remarkable responsibility, had been triggered.

The Coast Guard got no signal on Channel 16, the mayday band, and picked up nothing from the EPIRB system, a floating radio distress call, Kulisch notes. Moreover, Kulisch adds, the Coast Guard did no know where to look; the fire alarm was not traceable.

Still, there was VMS, and belatedly, the Coast Guard agreed to use the system to locate the Patriot. But the search and rescue personnel on duty in Sector Gloucester were unable to open the magic box to pull out the last ping of the Patriot, a move that could have quickly pinpointed the boat's location.

Kulisch has promised a complete public report on this and all aspects of the depressing events of the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 3.

There is of course, the apparent issue of simple competence at an essential action, getting into a system that held exclusive and essential information for the lifesaving side of Coast Guard operations.

But behind it, say fishermen and their advocates, including state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, is the worry that institutional values are responsible for the way VMS is used, unused and abused.

Parsing his words carefully at a news conference called by Kulisch last Friday, Tarr pointedly said it was time that the lifesaving side of VMS gets equal priority with the enforcement side.

"The disconnect between the Fisheries Service and the rest of the known world is widely acknowledged and documented," fisherman Paul Cohan wrote to the Times. "However a disconnect between two government agencies responsible for the well being of both the resource and those who harvest it is inexcusable."

"Save the fish first and then we may get around to the fishermen ..." Cohan added. "You can get busted for inadvertently wandering 100 yards into a closed area, yet that very same technology can't be accessed to save your life?"

Cohan urged switching primary control of VMS to Coast Guard.

"This tragic and perhaps preventable incident underscores many shortcomings of fisheries management and the interaction between two government agencies — one charged with killing fishermen and another burdened with saving them," he said.

Cohan would like to see the system they have in Iceland used here. That island fishing nation operates a VMS system in precisely the way Cohan proposes.

It's called the Iceland Integrated System, based on VMS, and its primary goal, ahead of nabbing a fishing boat that meanders into a closed sector, is keeping fishermen alive. The system purports to be able to pinpoint the position of any vessel carrying it within several hundred miles of the island.

"If a vessel is not reporting its position according to schedule," reads the Icelandic protocol, "investigation must start after 30 minutes with a following full scale search and rescue operation if needed."

Richard Gaines can be reached at