FISHING VESSEL SAFETY RULES URGED

We have been concerned about safety in the commercial fishing industry since our 20-year-old son, Peter, died in August, 1985, when the unstable, unseaworthy 70-year-old wooden seiner he was on sank with all hands in the unforgiving waters off Kodiak, Alaska. The boat had no life rafts, no exposure suits, no emergency signaling devices. All six aboard died without a chance.

The owner/operator could not afford insurance. The autopsy showed that he had been able to afford cocaine. What shocked us was that he violated no regulation. He would have been subject to more rules if he had been out for a spin in a 20-foot pleasure boat, because our commercial fishing industry is almost completely unregulated.Commercial fishing is the most dangerous occupation in the United States, twice as dangerous as mining and seven times as dangerous as the average industry. We learned from accident victims or their relatives of incompetent skippers and worn out boats that should never have been at sea. We discovered that no comprehensive safety legislation had even been introduced in the Congress for over 45 years. And, together with many individuals who share our concerns, we decided that action was need.

Fishing vessel safety legislation almost passed in 1986. With the support of the fishing industry and those who advocate minimal mandatory safety standards, H.R. 5013 was sent to the floor of the House with the overwhelming support of the Maritime and Fisheries Committee. In addition to requiring minimal survival equipment such as life rafts, H.R. 5013 also provided for limits on awards that juries could make to injured fishermen, a measure sought by fishing vessel owners affected by skyrocketing insurance premiums.

The bill was defeated because of last minute opposition by the Trial Lawyers Association of America and four consumer groups who were concerned that a cap on liability would damage the interests of crewmen and set a bad precedent for other industries.

We were disappointed but not discouraged at the failure of the 99th Congress to deal with the fishing safety problem. What we are seeking from the 100th Congress is a Fishing Safety Act of 1987. Like H.R. 5013, such legislation ought to require survival equipment such as life rafts, radio equipment, visual distress signals and exposure suits for northern waters. We also believe it should provide for mandatory licensing of fishing vessel operators and inspection of documented vessels.

These measures were contained in some of the bills introduced last year but did not survive in the compromise H.R. 5013. Both licensing and inspection were strongly recommended by the Coast Guard's Office of Merchant Marine Safety in a 1971 study. Similar measures affecting tow-boat operators were introduced in the late 1970s, with appropriate measures to ease the transition such as the automatic issuance of licenses to experienced operators.

We know that the measures we are asking for would represent a major change for the fishing industry, but we think they are essential to deal with cases like the Western Sea - unseaworthy vessels with irresponsible owners. We have already received pledges of support from members of Congress, major organizations and individuals who believe, as we do, that new fishing vessel safety requirements will save lives and create a sounder, healthier fishing industry.

Bob Barry is a career foreign service officer, most recently serving as head of the U.S. delegation to the Stockholm Conference on Confidence Building and Disarmament in Europe, and former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria. Peggy has been active in fishing safety matters and testified before the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee last year.

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