Drugs or alcohol have been involved in at least six commercial fishing accidents that claimed lives or vessels in Southeast in the past 18 months, Lt. Patrick Drayer, investigations division chief for Coast Guard Sector Juneau, said this week.
Drayer is compiling information he intends to include in a recommended regulation change that would make commercial fishing boats adhere to the same drug and alcohol programs enforced on operators of most other commercial vessels.
As creating a new regulation is a lengthy process, the agency in the meantime will continue outreach efforts, including education about regulations and voluntary dockside exams, he said.
“This is about changing the mindset, that, in this type of industry, where the slightest misstep can result in injury or death, to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not acceptable,” Drayer said in an interview.
Under existing regulations, mariners doing “safety-sensitive” jobs aboard vessels skippered by Coast Guard-licensed operators must comply with a drug and alcohol safety program that includes a pre-employment drug test, random drug tests, “reasonable cause” tests and periodic tests for license renewal.
Those requirements apply to many commercial boats but only to fishing vessels that exceed 200 tons, Drayer said. He believes there’s enough drug and alcohol use contributing to accidents aboard smaller fishing vessels to warrant the change.
Drayer said there are many more accidents aboard fishing boats than are reported, estimating that fewer than one fifth of them come to the Guard’s notice. Also, the state and federal governments have differing accident reporting requirements and there are nuances and exceptions in current reporting regulations.
United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Mark Vinsel said in an interview his organization hasn’t discussed the potential extension of drug and alcohol program requirements to fishing boats.
“As a trade association representing professional fishermen, we embrace practical measures that prevent the deaths of fishermen. I think we’d be interested in knowing whether the Coast Guard has the funding and logistics to carry out such a program like that so that it’s not a new burden on what’s already a difficult business,” Vinsel said.
Vinsel said UFA embraces practical research that works with the industry, including a recent safety program through the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. “On most boats I know, there’s no drinking on board until the catch is delivered and the boat is safely tied up to the dock,” he said.
Drayer said a regulation change would take a long time and would be his “final option” but his agency is concerned because drug and alcohol use jeopardizes lives of boat operators, crew and crews on nearby vessels.
Under current law, skippers or deckhands of operating fishing boats are prohibited from consuming alcohol and may not have a blood-alcohol level of .04, half the legal limit for operating a vehicle.