ON ALMOST every working day of the year, an American commercial fishing vessel is lost in an accident involving flooding, foundering, capsizing, fire or explosion. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, which recently issued a report on safety in the fishing industry, this startling statistic -- 250 boats lost every year -- is ample reason for an increased federal effort to protect workers in this industry. It is, in terms of lives lost, far and away the most dangerous one in the nation.
Bob and Peggy Barry, who live in this city, know personally the tragedy that unsafe and ill-equipped fishing vessels can produce. Their son Peter, then a student at Yale, was killed in the summer of 1985 when a ship on which he was working sank off the Alaska coast. The Barrys and hundreds of others with an interest in a safe fishing fleet, some of whom have suffered losses similar to the Barrys', have organized to pressure Congress for new safety legislation, and the NTSB report is powerful evidence that their efforts are needed.
The safety board studied conditions on vessels that are not subject to Coast Guard regulation and not required to have licensed personnel or documented seamen. There are 33,000 such boats in operation, manned by more than 100,000 fishermen. Like the boat on which Peter Barry died, many have inadequate safety equipment, captains and crew without training in safety procedures and problems relating to structure and stability. The NTSB recommends that safety training be required, that captains be licensed and that boats be subject to periodic Coast Guard inspection. Basic lifesaving equipment -- rafts, survival suits, flood and fire detection equipment, radios and emergency position indicator beams -- should also be mandatory.
Legislation to improve safety conditions in the commercial fishing fleet is now moving through both houses of Congress. The industry would like to be protected by a cap on liability in cases of accident, but the opposition of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America to this extraneous provision killed the bill last year. That should not be allowed to happen again. The dangerous and unsupervised conditions in this industry need congressional attention.