For New England fishermen, tide turning on safety

After a tragic accident in 2004, the fishing community is embracing safety lessons.

Back when Ben Webster spent his summers lobstering off Maine on his best friend's boat, safety was the furthest thing from his mind. "Honestly, I never knew much of anything," he says. "We thought of the Coast Guard as the cop of the ocean."

Today he's a US Coast Guard inspector who "walks the docks" of Massachusetts, scrutinizing the safety of commercial fishing vessels. And like his own change of heart, he sees the region's fishermen dropping - at long last - their storm-tested resistance to rules and regulations in order to learn the lessons of staying alive.

"There has been a shift in attitudes," Mr. Webster says on a wintry morning at the Boston Fish Pier, where he checks that ships' survival suits are properly stored, and that on-board batteries are fresh.

The capsizing of a scallop boat from New Bedford, Mass., in December 2004 is what stirred the fishing community to action. Five men died in that ferocious storm, the worst tragedy in the region since the sinking of the Andrea Gail in 1991, later memorialized in the book and movie "The Perfect Storm."

In New Bedford, south of Boston, safety classes have since filled to the brim with lobstermen, cod fishermen, and scallopers. They have been so popular that Gloucester, up north, has received a grant to start its own safety program. US Coast Guard inspectors say they are welcomed onto more boats - a positive sign, they add, since their voluntary inspections will soon become mandatory for many vessels under National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) enforcement.

Growing safety consciousness comes at a time of major change in the industry. Restrictions to reduce overfishing have slashed revenues, forcing fishermen to reduce their crews, leaving them with less margin for error at sea. Local fishermen faced another setback recently when the New England Fishery Management Council proposed further reductions to the hours they can spend at sea.

On the Boston docks, Salvatore Bramante, whose family has long had a presence at the Fish Pier, is fixing an emergency light on one of his vessels. He talks easily with Webster, whose team has been inspecting his fleet for years. Safety has become embedded in the culture of fishing today, he says, unlike the days when he used to stock his boat with just two dories, flare signals, and a compass or two.

The first law to improve safety in the industry came with the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act in 1988. But Webster says the industry, among the most dangerous in the country, is still highly unregulated, and so his job is to reach out to as many fishermen as possible.

Six members of Webster's team travel up and down the coast every day, making sure zippers are waxed, navigation lights and distress signals work, and that flares are not expired. The goal is prevention, so instead of writing violations, Webster says he'll strike up a conversation and hand out his card. "I don't say, 'Hey, let me inspect your boat,' " he says. "I try to build trust."

On May 1, these voluntary checks will become mandatory for many vessels.

Those on the docks have not always embraced such efforts. But accidents like the one in New Bedford have been a "reality check," says Webster. Last year, his crew inspected a record 247 boats, up from 200 the year before.

Many safety lessons seem obvious - like putting on a survival suit. But about half of the fishermen had never put one on before, says Ed Dennehy, whose group, New Directions, facilitates the New Bedford safety program. Ten to15 percent brought in suits that leaked or did not fit, he says.

The costs of fishing have also made fishermen more aware of the risks at sea. Captain Ralph St. Croix returned to the Boston Fish Pier last month after a week of trawling for monkfish and red snapper, an excursion he has taken for years, but now with half the crew he used to hire. He says he is currently bringing his boat up to US Coast Guard safety standards.

The engine room of a friend's boat recently filled with three feet of water, sounding alarms that had just been replaced. Last year his brother was fishing when his rudder broke and his boat capsized; his survival suit saved his life.

Says Mr. St. Croix: "Out there things happen so quick you have to be prepared."

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