‘No-fault’ vessel safety exams

In early September, two fishing boats from Gloucester turned out for voluntary inspections to see if they had all the necessary safety equipment required buy the new federal regulations. When the examinations were completed 2 to 3 hours later, the captains were given a list of gear they needed to have on board – but no notice of violation.

The vessels were the first ones in the Northeast to take advantage of the Coast Guard’s dockside examination program for uninspected commercial fishing boats. The purpose of the campaign is to educate vessel operators and captains about the lengthy list of new vessel safety requirements. Sept. 15 was the deadline for much of that equipment to be put aboard.

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A directive from the commandant spells out the procedures the Coast Guard intends to take to encourage compliance with the safety regulations. At the core of the policy is an active educational effort to inform the fishing industry about vessel safety in general and the availability of dockside exams in particular.

The directive states that no violation reports – that is, no fines or penalties – will be issued as a result of voluntary dockside inspections.

“It takes a while for captains to adjust to this style of inspection,” says Boston-based C.W.O. Joseph McKechnie. “It’s very friendly.” He reports that the Boston Marine Safety Office had arranged for more than 30 voluntary inspections. “Some boats have been close to compliance,” he says. “Others haven’t been.”

Safety inspections will also be conducted during routine law enforcement boardings, but there the stakes are higher. At least one boat has been ordered back to port because of safety law violations that were identified during a general boarding at sea. For now, there won’t be patrols “for the sole purpose of safety equipment enforcement,” according to the commandant.

Vessels that have successfully completed dockside inspections will be given decals. Boats displaying decals that are less than two years old will be considered “low priority safety boarding targets” by Coast Guard patrol vessels. However, displaying a safety decal will not act as a deterrent to boardings for other law enforcement purposes.

While the dockside exams are intended to be non-adversarial, vessels that are found to be “ill-equipped and poorly maintained” can be kept from going to sea. According to fishing vessel safety specialist Lt. Cmdr. Ed McCauley, this would only affect boats that are “manifestly unsafe.” As an example, he points to a hypothetical vessel that is taking on water faster than its bilge pumps can remove.

During the first year that the safety regulations are in effect, equipment checks will focus on personal flotation devices, immersion suits, distress signals and EPIRBs (emergency position-indicating radio beacons).

Anyone who is interested in scheduling a dockside examination should contact their district marine safety office.

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