Since 1988, the Coast Guard has performed voluntary inspections to ensure fishing boats carry required safety gear. Two years ago, President Obama signed a bill that requires every fishing boat sailing beyond the 3 nautical-mile line to be inspected.
While there are no fines for noncompliance, after Oct. 16, the Coast Guard will order uninspected boats back to port.
Now, the problem for the Coast Guard is getting the word out.
“We’ve been hitting the docks for the last couple weeks,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Guy Hughey of Kodiak’s Marine Safety Detachment.
Stacks of warning letters have also been left at Kodiak’s Harbormaster office, fuel distributors and with Kodiak’s fishing groups.
While plenty of boats have gotten their certifications, there’s no way to tell how many have let voluntary inspections lapse or have never been inspected. The safety detachment keeps records of registered boats, but those figures don’t include how many boats actively fish.
The fear, safety officers explained, is that once the regulation becomes effective, there will be a flood of fishermen seeking certification, creating a backlog.
On Wednesday, Steven Eggemeyer’s 32-foot Emerald Sea was the sole boat seeking an inspection.
Eggemeyer uses the boat for three weeks each year in Bristol Bay, but to get there he has to cross the Shelikof Strait, he explained, a trip that takes him outside the 3-mile line. Boats licensed for oil spill response also need to be officially inspected. “Now’s the time to do it anyway,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Docked in St. Paul Harbor, the Emerald Sea needed about 45 minutes to receive its inspection from Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Houvener and Coast Guard Auxiliarist Alan Morris.
While Houvener looked at Eggemeyer’s paperwork, and things like the boat’s running lights, he was mainly looking for what the Coast Guard calls the “Big 8”: a working life raft, survival suits, rescue beacon, fire extinguishers, life rings, flooding alarms, stability instructions and safety drills.
“These are all items they can get turned around for,” Houvener said.
Following the law isn’t always cheap. A new emergency beacon can cost more than $1,000; a new life raft costs in excess of $3,000.
After he received a new inspection sticker, Eggemeyer said the inspection was one of the easiest he’s been through in his years of fishing but was probably “the most expensive to get ready for.”
Houvener said the Coast Guard understands the problem. “There’s definitely a fine line between keeping someone safe and putting them out of business because they can’t afford it,” he said.
The cost of getting ready for an inspection means not everybody is happy about moving to mandatory inspections. “When it goes from voluntary to mandatory, ka-ching!” said Gary Nielsen of the fishing vessel Victory.
Nielsen has been fishing for 40 years and said the mandatory inspections are another way the federal government is hindering fishermen from doing their jobs.
“I don’t want to see anybody hurt. Nobody does; it just eats at me,” he said.
To schedule a boat inspection, call the Kodiak marine safety detachment at 486-5918.