On the front lines of safety

Crab fishing vessels load crab fishing supplies and equipment in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, Oct. 14, 2012. Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island is a central location for Bering Sea fishing operations and the home of Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment Dutch Harbor U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class David Irvin.

From the East Coast to the West Coast and up to the frigid waters of Alaska, fishermen brave the elements to deliver the sea’s bounty to supermarket shelves and dinner tables.

There are fisheries year-round in Alaska, and some of the most famous fishing seasons are the Alaskan red king and Opillio crab seasons.  These crab-fishing seasons may be famous, but they are also infamous for being brutal and sometimes deadly as the fishermen tackle winter storms, sub-zero temperatures, freezing spray and towering waves in search of their quarry.

As the fishermen take to their fishing boats and depart for another battle against the Bering Sea in search for crab, their safe keeping falls on the shoulders of the Coast Guard and on the front lines are the men stationed at Marine Safety Detachment Dutch Harbor.

From Oct. 14-17, the crew of MSD Dutch Harbor met with more than 40 of the 84 fishing vessel crews registered for the Bering Sea red king crab fishery and inspected their boats.  This marathon of inspections is a yearly custom for the office and the fishermen prior to the opening of the fall red king crab season.

The Dutch Harbor-based crew of seven, works to ensure all essential safety gear and equipment are available and in good repair aboard each fishing vessel. 

“Depending upon the size of the vessel, they have to carry a variety of safety gear including flares, survival suites, a life raft and an emergency position indicating radio beacon,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Philip Harris, one of three qualified vessel safety inspectors stationed in Dutch Harbor.  “In addition to the safety gear, there also needs to be on board firefighting equipment and proper navigational equipment including navigation charts, radios and proper navigation lights.”

The inspectors also review each vessel’s stability limitations. Each boat crew stacks their decks with upwards of 150 crab pots, and with each weighing 600 pounds or more vessel stability can quickly become an issue.  This is especially serious if the vessel is taking freezing spray, which can add hundreds of pounds of ice on top of the already heavy load.

Vessel stability could arguably be shown as the cause of the 2003 rescue of the crew of the 85-foot Raven.  While waiting for the crab season to begin, the Raven started listing heavily to one side prompting the rescue of all five crewmembers from the boat.  The Raven was eventually towed to a sheltered harbor where the pots were removed and the vessel stabilized before being towed to King Cove.  There were no injuries and the boat is still in service today, however, this case directly illustrates how essential stability can be.

“We find that while doing the stability checks, it is evident that a lot of boats (crews) don’t want to push their limit,” said Harris.  “They will often load well under their maximum capacity.”

In a constant battle against the stereotype of how deadly the pursuit of catching Alaska’s bounty of crab can be, education and prevention before heading to sea is an essential tool the Coast Guard employs to ensure that all Alaska fishermen come home safe.

Fishing vessel safety inspections, previously voluntary, became mandatory for all vessels, including crab fishing vessels, operating more than three miles from the territorial sea baseline Tuesday.  For more information about the mandatory inspections please visit the following link: http://d17.uscgnews.com/go/doc/4007/1580851/

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