Finally, Congress is pulling commercial fishing into the 21st century.
A commercial fishing boat is the most dangerous workplace, by far, in the United States. National average of workplace fatalities: 3.3 deaths per 100,000 workers. The second most dangerous occupation - logging: 61.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. Commercial fishing: 200 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2009.
And yet, from the time man first went out to sea in boats, safety has been up to the owner and captain, with few mandated policies and procedures.
For a long time, commercial fishermen relished their image as the last truly independent frontiersmen left in the American economy.
No longer. The industry appears to be fully behind a bill that will, for the first time, mandate safety inspections of all commercial fishing vessels. Currently, the safety inspections are voluntary. Yes, voluntary - in the most dangerous occupation in the nation.
The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in response to fishing deaths off the New England coast, was approved in both the House and Senate and is awaiting President Barack Obama's signature. The president is expected to sign it.
In addition to mandatory U.S. Coast Guard safety inspections twice in every five-year period, the bill will require safety training for vessel operators, new construction standards for boats longer than 50 feet, and the addition of a "load line" (to show how low in the water a loaded boat can go before becoming unstable) on boats longer than 79 feet.
The bill also allows some leeway for older vessels that can't meet all the standards for new vessels. The industry was concerned that the new rules could drive some boats out of business. That seems reasonable - depending on the amount of leeway granted. After all, the age of the nation's fishing fleet is, in fact, a key component of the safety problem.
But it is a good sign that Congress has finally addressed this problem - and that the fishing industry is behind it. Too many have already died - nine alone aboard vessels fishing out of Cape May, the Lady Mary and the Sea Tractor, in 2009. The port of Point Pleasant Beach lost two fishermen aboard the Alisha Marie in that same year.
It is, of course, impossible to say if the requirements in the new bill would have saved any of those lives. The ocean will always be a dangerous place to work. But it's long past time for the fishing industry to shed its cowboy image and cooperate in making fishing boats safer workplaces.