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Speeches

Fishing Vessel Safety Forum - Opening Statement
Robert L. Sumwalt
Washington, DC
10/13/2010

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome. My name is Robert Sumwalt and I am a Board Member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  I am honored to serve as chairman of this forum on fishing vessel safety.
 
The purpose of this forum is to obtain a better understanding of issues surrounding safety within the commercial fishing industry and to help identify strategies for improving safety.  Thank you for joining us.
 
Many of you are familiar with the NTSB through our public Board Meetings – what we refer to as sunshine meetings – where we consider the probable causes and recommendations arising from transportation accident investigations we have conducted, such as last year’s meeting on the sinking of the Alaska Ranger. While the purpose in convening this forum is not to focus on a single marine accident or incident, our discussions over the next two days will hopefully have a significant positive impact on the safety of our nation’s fishermen. As a result of this forum, the NTSB may be able to fulfill our broader mandate to formulate recommendations to improve safety and prevent future casualties.
 
I would like to take a moment to introduce the members of the Safety Board staff joining me on the technical panel. Seated to my right is Mike Rosecrans, Deputy Director of NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety, and the moderator of this forum. Next to him is Rob Henry, Chief of one of NTSB’s Marine Investigation teams. From our Marine Investigations staff, we are joined by Senior Accident Investigators Larry Bowling and Liam LaRue.
 
Commercial fishing has sustained mankind throughout recorded history.  In our own corner of the world, the bountiful stocks of fish along the North American coastline nourished native tribes as well as the European settlers who colonized the Americas, and later fueled the westward expansion of a fledgling nation. Even today, we continue to see tremendous growth of U.S. seafood exports to markets in Asia, Europe, and – closer to home – Canada. Commercial fishing remains both a necessary source of food for the world and an economic engine for coastal communities.
 
Why, then, do we focus for the next two days on the challenges and dangers associated with the fishing industry?  Because all too often, society has reaped the economic rewards of the work performed by commercial fishermen, while placing little or no value upon their safety.  Fishermen tolerate long absences from home, inhospitable environments, and workplaces that are teeming with heavy, dangerous equipment while constantly in motion.  Though nearly all fishermen wage a constant battle with fatigue and back-breaking physical labor, for some, the price paid is even higher: hypothermia, loss of limbs, and even death. 
 
It is a noteworthy distinction that in 2009, the fishing industry once again experienced the highest rate of fatal workplace injuries of any industry in the nation.  Last year, for every 500 American workers engaged in commercial fishing, one fisherman lost his or her life.  While the stirring images of “The Deadliest Catch” have thrust the dangers of commercial fishing into our national consciousness, we must not simply accept these dangers as the cost of doing business.
 
Before we look toward the future of commercial fishing safety in the United States, however, it’s worth noting how far we’ve come.  The members of our very first panel themselves have been deeply involved with some of the major milestones in fishing vessel safety, so I hope I’m not stealing any of their thunder with a brief look back.
In 1976, Congress passed the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, later renamed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, whose purpose was “to provide for the conservation and management of [our nation’s] fisheries.”  The Act gave the federal government authority over fisheries in a fishery conservation zone (later designated an exclusive economic zone, or “EEZ”) extending outside coastal state waters to 200 miles offshore. The Act also banned foreign fleets from fishing these waters. As a result, eight Fisheries Management Councils were created to develop sustainable management plans and measures for the fisheries within their respective EEZs. We will hear from a representative of one of these management councils during tomorrow’s session as well as others who deal with maintaining sustainable fisheries.
 
With a system in place to better manage our fisheries resources, the focus of many organizations began to turn toward the safety of those engaged in fishing them. In 1987, the NTSB issued a safety study entitled Uninspected Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety.  In that study, the Safety Board reviewed 204 major marine casualties involving commercial fishing vessels from 1978 through early 1987, and an annual average of 75 fatalities between 1981 and 1984.  The Safety Board made nineteen safety recommendations in the study, including the need for certification and periodic inspection of uninspected commercial fishing vessels. Many of the organizations consulted in the preparation of that study are represented here in this forum.
 
The first real steps to effect a change in commercial fishing safety came the year after the NTSB’s study, with the enactment of the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988.  For the first time, safety equipment aboard commercial fishing vessels was no longer discretionary, and regulators aggressively pursued safety within the industry with limited – but welcome – authority for the Coast Guard.  Under the Act’s authority, the Coast Guard – in consultation with the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Advisory Committee – established basic requirements for lifesaving and firefighting equipment on commercial fishing vessels.  Once again, we are very fortunate to be joined here today by several individuals who were part of that original revolution in safety within the commercial fishing industry.
 
As mandated by the Act, the National Research Council (NRC) conducted its own study of fishing vessel safety and the need for vessel inspections. Its report, Fishing Vessel Safety—Blueprint for a National Program, was published in 1991.  The council’s report recommended: “basic safety and survival training for fishermen; skills development for vessel operators; some form of certificate or license to validate that essential skills have been acquired and to motivate attention to safety; and an inspection program for vessels to ensure that they are fit for service.” The Coast Guard endorsed several of these recommendations, including the establishment of an inspection program for commercial fishing vessels.
 
Following the NRC report, the Coast Guard submitted its required report to Congress in 1992 on inspection of commercial fishing vessels.  The plan recommended a three-tiered, risk-based inspection program based on the length of the vessel, rather than the simple definition of a vessel as a fishing, fish processing, or fish tender vessel. The plan’s three tiers included self-examination for all commercial fishing vessels, new and existing, less than 50 feet long; third-party inspection for all commercial fishing vessels, new and existing, of length greater than or equal to 50 feet but less than 79 feet; and, Coast Guard inspection and load line assignment for all commercial fishing vessels, new and existing, greater than or equal to 79 feet in length.
 
When the Coast Guard submitted the inspection plan to Congress, it indicated that voluntary measures were not sufficient to ensure that vessels were fit for their intended service, and argued that the tiered mandatory approach would increase safety and be less burdensome to owners and operators. Congress chose not to grant legislative authority to the Coast Guard for its inspection plan.
 
The following year, in 1993, the Coast Guard submitted another plan mandated by the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988– this one on the licensing of fishermen.  The plan once again recommended a tiered approach to licensing fishermen and operators of commercial fishing vessels. Once again, Congress declined to grant the Coast Guard the legislative authority to implement it.
 
While various regulatory proposals have been made – and rejected – over the years, there has been no shortage of studies pointing to the need for change. In 1999, the Coast Guard conducted a study of the state of safety within the commercial fishing industry, entitled Living to Fish - Dying to Fish, as a result of eleven fatalities experienced in a three-month period.  That report included 48 recommendations in seven categories, and touched upon many themes we expect to be addressed by our forum’s panelists.  These include coordinating fishery management with safety; establishing operator and crew standards; establishing safety and stability standards; and, ensuring that vessels comply with standards.
 
Later, in 2008, the Coast Guard published an analysis of fishing vessel accidents that occurred in the U.S. between 1992 and 2007.  Altogether, 1,903 vessels were lost, with 934 fatalities.  According to the Coast Guard, however, annual fatalities have dropped since safety equipment became mandatory.  This casualty report reinforces some important findings that we will explore during this forum.
 
In late September of 2010, a significant milestone occurred – one that should have a positive impact on safety - when Congress passed the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010. Passage of that Act grants the Coast Guard significant additional authority to develop regulations that will address known problems within commercial fishing. 
Some of the new authority will address:
  • Mandatory examinations of vessels operating more than 3 miles from the coast;
  • Classification of new vessels over 50 feet in length;
  • Load Line Certificates for new vessels over 79 feet in length;
  • Training certificates for those in charge of vessels operating more than 3 miles from the coast;
  • Removal of the Boundary Line as a line of demarcation for equipment requirements; and
  • Identical requirements for vessels based upon operating area versus method of registration.
Although this legislation should enhance fishing vessel safety, the additional authority granted to Coast Guard does not address NTSB recommendations in the areas of full inspection of fishing vessels and licensing of mariners within the fishing industry.  Implementation of this new authority will take significant work on the part of the Coast Guard and stakeholders within the industry. Panelist should expect some questions on what the new authority means in a number of areas.
 
Despite the many studies, hours of research, and hundreds of recommendations meant to improve safety within the commercial fishing industry, the Bureau of Labor Statistics identified commercial fishing as the most dangerous occupation in America in 2007, 2008, and again in 2009.  Undoubtedly, significant progress has been made in improving safety over that last twenty years; but significant work remains to be done so that commercial fishing no longer tops this list.
 
Many public and private organizations have worked cooperatively and proactively to address the risks facing our nation’s fishermen; regrettably, the Safety Board continues to investigate commercial fishing accidents resulting in serious injuries and deaths. The list of these vessels – and the lives lost aboard them – have become a grim roll call for the commercial fishing industry.
 
This forum is intended to identify safety issues in the commercial fishing industry - from both industry and government perspectives - and to identify strategies for preventing accidents and reducing the industry's high rate of injuries and fatalities. We hope the next two days will begin a continuing dialogue on strategies for improving safety within the commercial fishing industry.  Our focus will remain on the fishermen, and we have organized this forum so that the fishermen will, in essence, have the last word at the end of each day.
 
I would like to thank each of the panel members for devoting their time and energy to this forum.  Many of them have flown across the country to be with us these next two days, and we sincerely appreciate their willingness to do so.
 
We are also fortunate to have some outstanding visual displays set up in the conference rooms adjoining the Board Room lobby, and I invite everyone attending this forum to visit them during our breaks. I would like to thank the organizations who have provided these displays: the U.S. Coast Guard; the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association; the U. S. Marine Safety Association; and, Fish Safe BC.
 
Finally, I would like to thank the outstanding staff of the Safety Board who have worked for months to make this forum a reality. The staff in NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety took on this massive effort at the same time they were conducting numerous accident investigations. They did so because of their deep commitment to the safety of our nation’s fishermen, and I would like to thank them by name: Dr. Jack Spencer, Mike Rosecrans, Rob Henry, Larry Bowling, Liam LaRue, and Charlotte Cox. I would also like to thank Antion Downs, Greg Pereira, Rochelle Hall, Christine Fortin, Brian Dennis, Robert Turner, and Keith Holloway for their invaluable administrative, technical, and press support.
 
At this time, I would ask our moderator, Mike Rosecrans, to introduce the first panel.