CAPE MAY - Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen on Friday called on Congress to pass new regulations to make the commercial fishing industry operate more safely.
Allen, speaking at Training Center Cape May, said the Coast Guard wants mandatory safety training of fishermen, inspection of vessels and stability tests on the boats, especially when they have been retrofitted to alter their original purpose, as doing so can change a vessel's center of gravity.
"I think it's time to come to grips with fishing vessel safety. We could close safety gaps and prevent some tragic loss of life," Allen said.
The Coast Guard's highest-ranking officer said he could not comment specifically on the Lady Mary pending an investigation of the Port of Cape May scallop vessel that sank March 24 about 65 miles offshore. The sinking took the lives of six local fishermen.
A Coast Guard spokeswoman, however, said the Friday afternoon news conference was called partly due to the Lady Mary case.
Allen said the Coast Guard has convened a Marine Board of Inquiry to investigate the sinking and is "delving down deeply" into the reasons.
"It's a very complex investigation," said Allen, who was based in Atlantic City from 1979 to 1982 and lived in Mays Landing. His wife, Pam, worked as a math teacher at Oakcrest High School during that tour of duty, Allen said.
Allen said training for fishermen should include how to control fires and flooding on boats, as well as the use of life rafts and how to quickly and properly don a survival suit. Allen said that during 38 years in the Coast Guard, he has seen too many tragedies.
"We have a lot of cases where they didn't survive because they didn't properly put on a survival suit or get in a raft," he said.
The Lady's Mary's empty life raft was found drifting in the ocean the morning of the sinking. The investigation already has raised questions about the crew's use of safety equipment required by federal law to be on the boat. Two deceased crewmen, Bernie Smith and Frank Credle, were found without survival suits on. Two others who died, brothers Royal Smith Jr. and Timothy Smith, had not put them on properly, so 40-degree water got in.
The lone Lady Mary survivor, Jose Luis Arias - who did put on his suit properly - testified before the Coast Guard board that crewman Frankie Reyes was holding a survival suit but was panicking and wanted help putting it on. The bodies of Reyes and Jorge Alberto Ramos Arteaga were never found.
Allen said he also wants mandatory boat inspections. A voluntary system now in place lets captains call the Coast Guard for an inspection. The Lady Mary was inspected July 21, 2008.
Allen said voluntary inspections are "based on good intentions," but said that mandatory ones - such as those required for automobiles - would get full participation. Allen also said the Coast Guard cannot stop a deficient boat from sailing but can board it at sea and order it ashore due to safety problems.
Allen also called for stability tests for fishing vessels. Stability issues have been raised with the Lady Mary, which was retrofitted for scalloping after it was built to catch Gulf of Mexico shrimp. The southern New Jersey clamming industry has suffered numerous deaths due to boats rolling over.
"We mandate this on larger boats, but 79 feet is the cutoff now," Allen said.
The commandant stopped short of calling for licensing captains, which is required in other marine occupations, but he said the issue "is probably worthy of discussion."
There is some evidence that the Lady Mary may have been hit by a large container ship, and some fishermen have called for speed limits for such vessels in commercial fishing grounds. Speeds are regulated in areas frequented by endangered whales. Allen said that would not be up to the Coast Guard but would be a decision by the Department of Commerce.
Allen said electronic tracking of all vessels weighing more than 300 gross tons is required. Most fishing vessels are too small, although it is required for a few specific fisheries, including scallops. Allen called it an "item of discussion" for the entire industry.
Allen also recommended "float plans," in which someone on shore is given details of a fishing trip and who the crew is, as a voluntary measure. Investigators did not immediately know who was on the Lady Mary after it sank.
"I'm in favor of float plans. I'm not sure about mandatory float plans," Allen said.
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