Alaska fishermen see trouble brewing if the U.S. Coast Guard approves a new rule creating anti-terrorist security zones around cruise ships in state waters.
The rule, as proposed, requires a 100-yard no-vessel-entry zone around a cruise ship when it is moving, and 25 yards when it is moored or anchored.
Boat or floatplane operators would need to apply for waivers from the captains of their port in order to enter the zones. Violators could be hit with criminal charges and fines up to $10,000.
Based on the feedback so far, Coast Guard officials are not sure if they'll be able to publish a final rule in time for the 2005 cruise ship season, which begins next month.
"The intent was to have something in place for this year's season," said Coast Guard Lt. Matthew York. But now the Coast Guard realizes changes may be necessary, he said.
"The intent is not to disrupt fishing," York added.
The current version of the rule would do exactly that, said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance. "It would totally hamstring us in the summer," she said.
"We are having enough difficulties in the commercial fishing industry without being further restricted from fishing in areas that are open to us but we would be unable to access with (cruise ships) transiting the area," Hansen said, in a letter she sent to the Coast Guard last week.
She is just one of a number of Alaska fishermen's group representatives and harbor operators who believe that the proposed rule could make it difficult for boats or floatplanes to launch, fuel and navigate in Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound ports of call, such as Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka and Whittier.
The United Fishermen of Alaska, an umbrella group of 31 Alaska fishing groups, and the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, as well as floatplane operators, have questioned the rule.
"One thing that has come through loud and clear is the port congestion in all of Southeast Alaska," York said.
If the rule forces boats or planes into small areas of the harbors not included in a security zone, it's possible those areas could become severely congested, York said.
"That's going to play into the district commander's decision on the final rule," he said. "It may come out that the rule will be totally different."
The trouble isn't just in harbors, fishermen say.
Southeast Alaska and Cordova gillnetters say they already have some trouble sharing space with cruise ships in some of the coast's tighter inlets and channels. "There have been nets run over, on occasion," said Jev Shelton, a Juneau gillnetter.
"We've got a limited amount of time to fish. Every minute counts," said Diane Platt, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United. "Anytime we're not able to operate to be successful - that's a problem."
York said the Coast Guard is now considering providing the public a second chance to comment on the proposed rules. The initial 30-day comment period ended last Friday.
Nineteen groups and individuals filed comments, he said.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is trying to clarify to fishermen and other operators the impact of the proposed rule, published in the March 9 Federal Register.
For example, York said, gillnetters and seiners who set their gear in the water are classified as "stationary" and thus exempt from the rule while they are fishing.
Still, fishing boats traveling to tenders, or vice versa, would likely not be exempt from the proposed rule.
Trollers would not be exempt from the proposed rule while they are fishing because they are able to maneuver their boats, York said.
"Certainly we are moving, but our gear is down 40 fathoms with lead balls on the end of them," responded Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.
"It's not like we can make a quick little turn. It takes time and area to maneuver," Kelley said.
She said it would be helpful to trollers if the Coast Guard allows more time to comment on the rule.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org