July 20, 2008

Fishermen Worry About Boat Sizes Noted in New USCG Regs

By Laine Welch, Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage

Jul. 20--Fishermen are seeing red flags as Congress retools the rules that will govern the U.S. Coast Guard through 2012.

The USCG Act that was passed by the U.S. House (HR 2830) contains business busters for fishing operations, mostly in the form of new licensing, inspection and reporting requirements for even the smallest boats. The bill now passes to the U.S. Senate.

"It would require survival craft on any commercial fishing vessel, even seine skiffs. That doesn't' make sense," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, representing 37 fishing groups.

"We've got fishing vessels registered in Alaska as small as 7 feet, and more than 2,000 that are 20 feet or under," Vinsel said. "The breadth of the different fisheries in Alaska does not necessarily match the Coast Guard's idea of what they are trying to regulate, and the safety they are trying to ensure for fishermen."

The U.S. Fishing Industry Safety Advisory Committee recommends that the USCG assess "risk by fishery," instead of using a blanket approach. The committee is chaired by Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association in Sitka.

Also included in the USCG Act -- "classification" for fishing boats.

"That's something usually applied to cargo ships and tankers and cruise ships, not fishing boats," said UFA president Joe Childers. "That's a process that very few in the fishing industry have heard of."

"Classed" means a vessel has been examined by, for example, the American Shipping Society, Childers said.

"They look at its structural integrity, its ability to maintain power, propulsion systems, dewatering devices, navigation equipment, the deck machinery, basically, everything on the vessel," he said.

Initially the classification requirements would hit boats 50 feet or greater. Smaller vessels are exempted until 2018. At that time, all vessels that are 25 years or older would also require classification.

"Were this to go into effect, I believe you'd find a lot of boats fishing today in Alaska and elsewhere would be obsolete," Childers said.

The USCG estimates 80,000 commercial fishing boats are operating in the U.S.

By September, any water running off the decks will be considered "incidental discharge," if the Clean Boating Act (S. 2766) gets the nod from Congress.

"Hosing off your recreational or fishing boat would be subject to EPA regulation and permitting. We don't think this makes sense," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, adding it also applies to bilge water, cooling water and ballast discharges.

All recreational boaters are lined up to get a pass on the EPA permits, but not America's small fishing boats. Murkowski took some heat from the huge sport boat lobby for holding up the bill recently.

"We've got some 9,700 vessels in the Alaska fleet, predominately small boats with an average length of 36 feet. I think it is absolutely appropriate that if we exclude recreational vessels, as I believe that we should, that it is reasonable to also provide for permit relief for the smaller commercial vessels," she said in a phone interview.

Murkowski objected to a request from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to pass by unanimous consent an exemption for all recreational boaters from the EPA permit, and tried unsuccessfully to expand the same break to commercial fishing boats.

"The inequity of a small 36-foot seiner possibly being subject to these regulations and then you look at the 414-foot yacht that (Microsoft co-founder) Paul Allen owns ? under the Nelson Boxer bill, that vessel would be wholly exempt, whereas our little seiner would be subject to regulation and permitting and potential fines and sanctions?it simply doesn't make any sense," Murkowski said.

U.S. fishing boats 125 feet or less would be exempt from the new regulations under Murkowski's proposal. But so far, Boxer has refused to budge.

"As a matter of fact, 13 million boaters are going to wake up very unhappy in the morning if Sen. Murkowski objects to this bill," Boxer said in a press release, calling it a "delicate compromise."

The Marine Exchange of Alaska calls it "a nightmare for anyone who operates a watercraft, from a 950-foot container ship to a 14-foot outboard." A federal court has ruled the EPA must finalize the permitting process by Sept. 30.

A proposed rule was quietly published in the Federal Register that opens the door for offshore fish farms in U.S. waters. By going through the rulemaking process, the Bush administration can sidestep Congressional debate and approval.

The deep-sea farms would make use of existing oil and gas platforms from three to 200 miles off the nation's coasts.

A comprehensive energy bill passed by Congress in 2005 gives the Minerals Management Service the authority to regulate alternate projects, such as fish farms, on offshore platforms, said SeaFood Business. The Minerals Management Service will accept public comment on the proposed rule for 60 days and hopes to finalize the new rule by the end of the year.

Laine Welch, who lives in Kodiak, can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]


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