GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 14, 2009

Fishermen urge better use of VMS

Congressman says Coast Guard should use tracker for rescues

By Richard Gaines

NEW BEDFORD — A nascent coalition of political and fishing interests came into being yesterday around the notion that the VMS tracking or vessel monitoring system used to enforce the regulation of commercial fishermen could be as helpful — and should be — in finding and saving them.

Meeting here less than two weeks after the Coast Guard had trouble working the VMS system for data on the whereabouts of a Gloucester trawler — it sunk with its two-man crew on Jan. 3 — the political leadership of the state's leading fishing ports joined hands yesterday with congressional and industry forces.

The agreement was spontaneous and emotional that the Coast Guard make better use of the VMS system in search and rescue operations.

Acting on the urging of Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, a periodic meeting of fishing and political interests, organized by New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, gave rousing support to adding a reform of the VMS system to the impending Amendment 16, which will govern fishing activities for the New England region.

The loss of the Gloucester-based fishing vessel Patriot and its crew of a father and his father-in-law, Lang said, was a "reminder of the uncertainty of this way of life."

At the same time, the meeting's participants agreed to add reform of VMS to a formal list of topics Congressman Barney Frank has put before the nation's top fishing regulator, Dr. James Balsiger, acting administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

A third achievement of the meeting, Kirk said, was the successful test for "kindred spirit support" in pressing the Coast Guard for better search and rescue use of the VMS technology.

Kirk also said she intended to use her position on the state Ocean Advisory Commission to lobby for a more agile approach to the use of the tracking technology.

New Bedford's Congressman Frank and Balsiger met on fisheries issues Dec. 5.

Among the topics, according to a letter from Frank to Balsiger, that National Marine Fisheries Service was prepared to rethink are "bycatch," the required tossing overboard of fish from species caught while fishing for other species, "trawl research," which drives regulation, "transparency of science," and the interim measures to modify groundfish regulations while the fisheries service ponders permanent changes to the way fishing is controlled.

Release of the interim plan will come any day; it is expected to entail at least an 18 percent cut in days at sea allowed under Framework 42, which gave permit holders only 48 days a year to fish.

Mandatory for groundfishing boats, the VMS technology is utilized by the National Marine Fisheries Service to track fishing boats and often triggers boardings and searches by its personnel and Coast Guard teams looking for signs of illegal activities.

The Coast Guard, which has complete access to the VMS system that the National Marine Fisheries Service maintains, had trouble using the technology during a halting response the disappearance of a Gloucester trawler.

Kirk's appearance and appeal came less than two weeks after the modernized, steel-hulled 54-foot trawler Patriot was lost under mysterious circumstances with its two-man crew 15 miles from port in the overnight hours of Jan. 3.

The Coast Guard did not begin search and rescue for more than two hours after the pregnant co-owner of the boat, Josie Russo, called to report that normal telephone communications had been lost about the time a radio fire alarm on the boat went off.

Boston Sector commander Capt. Gail Kulisch said the sector was stymied accessing the locational tracking information in the VMS computer system, which is maintained for law enforcement and Coast Guard life-saving efforts by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Sector Boston apparently had to call Colorado to find the code that allowed access to the VMS system.

After the system was worked and the last locational signal from the Patriot was traced, additional time was lost as the Coast Guard seemed determined to eliminate benign explanations for the lack of communications to the boat before search and rescue was ordered.

Kulisch has declined to speculate how much time was lost.

Kirk told the biannual meeting of the Mayor's Ocean and Fisheries Council that she did not believe the delay cost the lives of the captain of the Patriot, Matteo Russo, 36, and his father-in-law and mate, John Orlando, 59.

Josie Russo co-owned the boat with her husband. He and Orlando, her father, were considered expert boatsmen and experienced fishermen.

"But that doesn't let them off the hook," Kirk said. "The process is broken," and in need of real reform."

"The VMS was not deployed until later," she said. "What is concerning for search and rescue is that the VMS system is used predominantly as 'electronic bracelet,'" by the National Marine Fisheries Service to monitor the time boats spend fishing and where they fish.

VMS is often used by NMFS and the Coast Guard to hone in on boats that are interdicted when the tracking showed them in closed fishing grounds.

The meeting began with a moment of silence, not just for Russo and Orlando, but also for Antonio Mesquita, the captain of a New Bedford-based fishing boat that was lost more than 100 miles east of Cape Cod in November, and Phil Ruhle, a Rhode Island fisherman, gear innovator and government critic, who was lost when his boat sank last summer off New Jersey.

The Coast Guard successfully used the VMS system to locate and rescue three other fishermen who had been on the Costa & Corva with Mesquita.

"Gloucester comes here today in the face of real tragedy," Kirk said. "A lot of questions have been raised" about the Coast Guard's response to word of trouble on the Patriot.

Garth Patterson, from Frank's office, said Congress is concerned that the Coast Guard does not seem adept at using VMS as a "safety tool."

Presiding at the meeting, Brian Rothchild, professor of marine science at the University of Massachusetts School of Marine Science and Technology, said there have been "continual complaints about the way VMS is used."

He diagnosed the root cause of the problem as poor communication between the National Marine Fisheries Service and Coast Guard, which has come to serve as the police force for much of the enforcement work conducted by fisheries service, whose regional offices are in Gloucester, once the nation's most productive fishing port, but now 10th after decades of constricting regulation has reduced the fleet to mostly small day boats that trawl for groundfish and a fleet of larger herring and mackerel boats.

New Bedford has become the No. 1 fishing port. It dominates in scalloping and has a large fleet of boats that work Georges Bank for days at a time.

Both fleets have been forced to adapt and borrow to remain in business while the National Marine Fisheries Service continues to protect the fisheries of the North Atlantic in a rebuilding effort that is scheduled for completion in 2014.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.