Two senators are key to passing legislation requiring the first overhaul of inspections and standards for America's fishing fleets. They are on opposite coasts, from states that share rich maritime traditions.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell chairs the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe is the subcommittee's senior Republican member.
The Senate has been the catch basin of vessel-safety legislation, and it will take a concerted effort by these two lawmakers to address a basic flaw in managing an industry with the nation's highest worker fatality rate.
The allure of danger associated with commercial fishing has made Discovery Channel's reality show, "Deadliest Catch," one of the most viewed cable programs. Viewers are promised that "the seas are rougher, the stakes are higher," for the captains and their crews.
The Senate becomes the focal point even before legislation leaves the House. A similar bill was voted out of the House in 2008, only to disappear in the Senate.
A key difference, noted by Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton in a June 28 article, is the amount of time and interest invested by Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Oberstar, a longtime champion of safety for workers, saw the deadly gap in attempted safety measures: fishing-vessel construction standards. The House bill looks at construction, design, maintenance, and operating standards for new vessels. Safety standards are phased in for older boats, and a 2020 deadline has been set for all vessels to meet.
The Coast Guard found that between 1992 and 2007, 55 percent of the 934 U.S. fishing-vessel deaths were attributed to boats capsizing, sinking, or flooding. Also during that same time period, most fatalities occurred on vessels between 50 and 79 feet long. Even so, no safe operating guidelines exist, naval architects do not need to approve new boats, and all vessels are inspected on a voluntary basis.
Although survival rates have increased over the years, it took horrible disasters to require emergency survival suits, beacons, and Coast Guard-approved life rafts. Commercial fishing is 28 times more hazardous than regular jobs, and many times more dangerous than logging, the next-deadliest industry.
A well-researched piece of legislation will go before the House this summer, and the likelihood of its passage remains strong.
The legislative hazard exists in the Senate. Cantwell and Snowe have an opportunity to make a lifesaving difference for everyone involved.