New Regulations Tackle Fishing Safety, Hours

One year after a fishing boat sank in a storm off Massachusetts, regulators and fishermen are taking steps to make the dangerous work safer. New government regulations allow captains to seek safe harbor during bad weather without losing the limited hours they're allowed to fish. Nancy Cook from member station WCAI reports.

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A year ago a scallop boat sank off the Nantucket coast in the Atlantic. Five men died, and the city of New Bedford, Massachusets, began to focus on how to make the industry safer. Reporter Nancy Cook from member station WCAI has more.

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NANCY COOK reporting:

On a late December morning, most scallopers have already left New Bedford for the year's last fishing trip, an expedition they approach with both anticipation and dread. The fishermen are excited to earn several thousand dollars in time for the holidays, but the December weather can also be unpredictable. Five days before Christmas last year, a boat called the Northern Edge sank off the Nantucket coast during a storm. Five of the six crewmen died. Their bodies were never recovered.

Ms. LUANN SULLIVAN(ph): The guy that survived said it was like minutes and he looked and the boat was gone.

COOK: Now Luann Sullivan, who lost her younger brother, Glen Crowley, spends the holidays remembering the accident.

Ms. SULLIVAN: The Coast Guard thinks that the dredge got snagged on something on the bottom of the ocean and it was--they were loaded. They were doing their last haul and they were going to be coming home.

COOK: After the boat sank, politicians, fishermen and government officials called for reform. The federal agency that oversees the fishing industry changed a regulation which originally penalized fishermen who left the sea during storms. Fisherman are allotted only so many days at sea in restricted areas where the fish stocks are low. After the tragedy, the agency amended the regulation so boats can seek safe harbor without sacrificing any fishing time.

But for fishermen, the change was largely cultural. Typically seen as independent and rugged, 480 of New Bedford's 2,000 fishermen have now participated in free safety classes. Rodney Avila(ph) is a boat owner who's worked on the waterfront for 40 years. He says the classes made him rethink safety.

Mr. RODNEY AVILA (Boat Owner): I thought my survival equipment was up to par, and I had six survival suits and six failed. We would have never known that unless the boat sank.

COOK: During the classes, fishermen practice putting on life jackets, inflating rafts and jumping into open water. The Coast Guard's investigation of the Northern Edge revealed that the boat's lone survivor was the only crew member who had received any safety training. The boat owner and captain had not required the men to perform regular safety drills. Safety classes are still optional, as are boat inspections. Federal law only requires inspections of boats 79 feet or longer. The Northern Edge measured 75 feet. Fishermen dislike the idea of additional regulations, but the Coast Guard wants more oversight. Mike Rosecrans, the agency's chief of fishing vessel safety, explains the two changes they'd like to see.

Mr. MIKE ROSECRANS (Chief of Fishing Vessel Safety): It would be twofold. It would be to require vessels to become inspected and to require merchant mariners in the fishing industry to be licensed to some level of competency. Right now anybody can walk off the street and go onto a fishing vessel and be the master.

COOK: Apart from the Safe Harbor Law and the safety classes, the sinking of the Northern Edge didn't alter the mind-set of the New Bedford fishing community. Deb Schraeder is a fisherman's wife and the executive director of the Fisherman's Emergency Relief Fund. She says the tragedy brought fishermen more national attention, but fishing is still a dangerous job.

Ms. DEB SCHRAEDER (Executive Director, Fisherman's Emergency Relief Fund): Fishing families, we always know that when we say goodbye that we may never see them again.

COOK: The fishing community hasn't planned any commemorative services this week, although photographs of two crew members still hang at the local fishermen's bar called the Cultivator Shoals. Last year the city inscribed the men's names in the Seaman's Bethel, a historic chapel mentioned in "Moby Dick." The only organized event occurs on Memorial Day, when everyone goes down to the docks to remember their colleagues. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Cook in New Bedford.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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