Classing of Commercial Fishing Vessels

Between 2000 and 2010 there were 278 fatalities on U.S.-flag commercial fishing vessels and 148 commercial fishing vessel disasters. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, commercial fishing is the most deadly industry in the United States. In the past 2 weeks, two commercial fishing vessels sank – the 55 foot shrimp boat MISS KATHY sank off Georgia and the 52 foot SEA BEAST sank off Washington State resulting in the death of its master.

The Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Act of 1988 has saved many lives by requiring safety equipment on vessels – such as immersion suits and Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs). However, this law did not establish any requirement for commercial fishing vessels to meet design and construction standards. The 1988 Act helped you once your vessel was sinking – but it did little to prevent it from sinking in the first place.

Section 603 of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 amended section 4503 of title 46 of the United States Code closed this gap by requiring all commercial fishing vessels that are 50 feet or overall in length and operate more than 3 nautical miles offshore to be designed, built, and maintained to a standard established by an approved classification society (such as the American Bureau of Shipping or DNV GL). Congress believed that these private sector safety organizations would work with the commercial fishing industry to develop flexible standards that would meet the needs of the fishing industry and improve safety. The deadline to meet these standards was delayed until June 30, 2013 to give the classification societies time to develop the standards and for the fishing industry to be able to use these standards for new fishing vessels. Classing works and is affordable – even for vessels in the 50 to 79 foot size range. Last year Kvichak Marine Industries built a 66 foot fish tender vessel PAUL JOHNSON for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation – it was classed by RINA (the Italian classification society) (see article).

The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015, as amended by the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, allows commercial fishing vessels that are between 50 and 79 feet to meet an “Alternate Safety Compliance Program” established by the Coast Guard instead of meeting the standards of a classification society. Classing begins with review of the construction plans, includes certification of shipyard workers such as welders, and continues on to periodic examinations to ensure that the vessel continues to meet the class society standards throughout the life of the vessel. To be an “Alternative” to classing that provides the same level of safety, the Coast Guard standards must include all of the components required under class requirements such as hull and machinery standards.

Under the 2010 Authorization Act, commercial fishing vessels built before July 1, 2013 do not have to be classed – but must meet the safety standards of an Alternate Compliance Safety Program established by the Coast Guard. Existing fishing vessels that are at least 50 feet overall in length must meet these requirements beginning on January 1, 2020 once the vessel is 25 years old.

While the sea will always be unpredictable and dangerous, it is time to implement design and construction standards for commercial fishing vessels to protect the men and women who put fish on our table to eat.

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