GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 27, 2009

Coast Guard bill includes new safety mandates

By Times Staff

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved new legislation that includes a number of fishing vessel safety improvements championed by Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank.

The 2010 Coast Guard Reauthorization bill increases funding for the Coast Guard, and enhances its ability to carry out homeland security missions. The bill passed the House on Friday by a vote of 385-11.

But, at Frank's initiative, the legislation also establishes marine safety as a core mission of the Coast Guard, creates a fishing safety training grant program, calls for new federally funded research on improving safety technology within the industry, and updates other safety requirements, including new safety standards for vessels of over 50 feet.

"Fishing is a dangerous business," Frank said in a prepared statement. "But there is a lot that can be done to minimize the hazards faced by fishermen.

"This bill makes safety training and research a high priority," added Frank, whose district includes the fishing port of New Bedford and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, with its marine science and research programs. "(The bill) provides the resources necessary to make a difference," he said,

A number of the fishing safety provisions were drawn from recommendations made by fishermen and other safety experts during public meetings on safety in New Bedford.

Among the fishing vessel safety provisions in the Coast Guard bill are the following:

Fishing Safety Training Grants. Provision authorizes up to $3 million annually for regional safety training programs similar to those hosted by the New Bedford in recent years. The Coast Guard bill makes training mandatory for vessel operators, and also takes into account their years of experience as captains. It also requires vessel operators to take a refresher course every five years. Participation by crew members would be voluntary, and both operators and crew members would receive certificates of participation.

Fishing Safety Research Grant. The bill adds fishing safety research to the Coast Guard's annual research and development efforts. Research topics eligible for funding would include vessel design, emergency and survival equipment, communications devices, de-icing and severe weather technology, and safety enhancements for vessel monitoring systems (VMS). The Coast Guard's inability to quickly access VMS data has been cited as one of many factors in the Guard's delayed response to the sinking of the Gloucester-based fishing vessel Patriot and the deaths of two crew in January.

Inspections and Equipment. The Coast Guard bill requires fishing boats to keep logs of the onboard safety drills required under existing law. In addition, all federally permitted vessels would be required to undergo a dockside inspection twice within a five-year period; the expansion of dockside inspections was also raised in New Bedford public meetings, Frank noted.

Vessel safety standards. Any new fishing vessels 50 feet or more in length, or those that undergo major alteration after the bill is signed into law, would have to be constructed and maintained in accordance with the standards of a recognized classification society such as the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). Also, any new fishing vessel over 79 feet would have to obtain a "load line."