Survival-suit law ignored Bay enforcers look away, wait for repeal.

March 03, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

EASTON -- Although a new federal law requires commercial fishing vessels working in cold coastal waters to carry survival suits for crew members, the U.S. Coast Guard and Maryland marine police are looking the other way when it comes to Chesapeake Bay watermen.

The reason has nothing to do with this winter's mild temperatures.

In fact, the law might not even be on the books now if it weren't for, of all things, President Bush's State of the Union address.

With the help of the state's congressional delegation, Maryland watermen convinced the Coast Guard that the bulky and expensive immersion suits popular among New England and Pacific Northwest fishermen would serve little use on the small workboats common to the Chesapeake's mostly shallow waters.

Immersion or exposure suits are designed to protect sailors from the life-threatening effects of hypothermia should they fall overboard or should their vessels sink in frigid water. The full-body, neoprene suits are inflatable. They were developed to keep wearers warm and afloat while waiting to be rescued.

Maryland watermen argued that it takes too much time to scramble into one of the bright orange suits, and that in most conditions on Chesapeake Bay, the suits would merely be excess dunnage -- and expensive, at $250 to $350 each.

Unlike workboats in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, bay workboats usually are small and, in the event of a serious accident, sink quickly.

"The things will sink in three minutes," says Larry Simns, Maryland Watermen's Association president. "You'd never have time to get a suit on."

Because the law does not require fishermen to wear the suits, Maryland watermen also complained that the equipment would take up what little storage space their workboats have.

In Maryland, the suits would have been mandatory safety equipment only in the cold months when hypothermia could be a problem. They would have been required in nearly all parts of the bay, although not in most tributaries.

Proponents of mandatory immersion suits include Kathleen M. Castro, a marine-animal specialist and boat-safety instructor with the Rhode Island Department of Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science.

Ms. Castro, who demonstrated the use of immersion suits at a recent watermen's convention in Ocean City, says commercial fishermen are exposed to greater risks than members of any other commercial industry in the nation.

"From my perspective, I'd like to see them survive," she says. "And why not spend some money on something that's going to save your life?"

Nevertheless, arguments against the suits apparently were compelling enough that the Coast Guard had agreed to rescind the law where it applied to areas such as Chesapeake Bay, and to ask watermen what measures they would be willing to take to enhance safety on the water.

"We're also reasonable men, and our main concern is that we educate the fishing industry as a whole," says Timothy Farley, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's Fishing Vessel Safety Section in Washington. "We're interested in their safety. We're not the long arm of the law all the time."

Mr. Farley says the loudest complaints against the suit regulation came from Maryland watermen, who were aided by Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes.

But, just as Coast Guard officials were about to exempt bay watermen from the law, along came President Bush's call for a 90-day moratorium on federal regulations.

In his January State of the Union address, Mr. Bush acknowledged that the complex web of federal regulations often had an unnecessarily chilling effect on private enterprise. He told his bureaucrats to hold the line on additional regulations until April.

Mr. Farley says Mr. Bush's order was interpreted to mean that the Coast Guard could not officially remove the immersion suit requirement for bay watermen because doing so would require regulatory action, which has been suspended until the 90-day period ends.

While it remains technically part of the law, the immersion suit requirement will be overlooked on the bay until it can be officially excised from the law books, say several Coast Guard and Maryland Department of Natural Resources staff members.

Meanwhile, watermen and the Coast Guard are nearing tentative agreement on a substitute for the immersion suit -- an aviation-type coverall that can float and offers some protection against cold water.

Unlike the full immersion suits, coveralls do not have hand, foot and head coverings. Some makes are not as expensive as immersion suits and take less time to put on.

Mr. Simns says he will not oppose efforts to require watermen to carry coveralls on board their boats "as long as they don't say we have to wear them."

Watermen who stay within the upper portions of the bay do not face the risk of drowning as much as do ocean fisherman, Mr. Simns says. Watermen usually travel in pairs, making rescue more likely in the case of an accident, he adds.

Mr. Simns, who has stocked immersion suits on his workboat for several years, says Maryland watermen resent the federal government's blanket regulations on commercial fishermen.

"I have the suits on my boat, but I don't think the feds should require us to have them," he says. "We go out every day, and we know how to take care of ourselves. The bureaucracy is so separated from what reality is."

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