A new Coast Guard regulation meant to crack down on drug and alcohol use in the commercial fishing fleet has left smaller operators - if they are even aware of it - a bit skeptical.
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Now all U.S. commercial ship owners must test their crew for drugs and alcohol after an accident involving death, serious injury or extensive property damage, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Randy Waddington.
Approximately 30 such accidents happen in Southeast Alaska each year, he said.
Juneau fishermen seemed unfazed Wednesday by the change.
"I haven't heard of it. Maybe the captain has," said Jess Helmstedder of the InSeine, captained by Brent Crowe.
Helmstedder said the regulation sounds like another effort to cut down on alcohol consumption aboard ships, but if the InSeine was involved in a major accident, "I could see that (giving an alcohol test) being the least of the captain's worries," Helmstedder said.
The new rule states that an alcohol test must be administered within two hours of an incident and a drug test within 36 hours. Failure to comply with the new rules could mean a $6,500 to $27,500 fine, Waddington said. If boats are more than two hours from an alcohol testing facility, special portable test kits must be administered by the ship's owner or captain. The tests cost $4.95 each or about $50 for a pack of 24.
Mike McHenry, who owns the 32-foot Mac and Water, said he hadn't heard about the new regulation when asked on Thursday.
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"It seems like a lot of extra work," he said, while filleting coho salmon on the docks at Auke Bay Harbor. He added that he wanted to know how it was going to be enforced.
"Especially if you are by yourself, what am I going to do?"
Waddington said he understands there is a major difference between small commercial boats and large vessels such as cruise ships and ferries, which is why an initial nationwide education period, instituted at the beginning of 2006, was extended another 90 days on June 20. That period might be over, but the Coast Guard is still waiting to start vigorous enforcement of the new regulations.
"The Coast Guard in Alaska continues (to) strive for education on the regulation at this time rather than a strict enforcement stance," Waddington said. "However, I anticipate a more strict enforcement stance as time goes by."
He said if Coast Guard officers think an owner is under the influence, they would step in.
Cruise ships and ferries adapted to the regulation easily, Waddington said. But fishermen on smaller boats have been more resistant.
"I think with the fishing vessels we found more resistance because they didn't just know that the regulations were enforced. They were pretty concerned about that and that is why we relaxed our enforcement phase a little bit longer."
For newer fishermen, the regulation is seen as just another one of many that must be learned to operate a boat in this area.
"I don't think it is a hassle, but some guys do," said Juneau-based fisherman, Jack Armer. Armer recently purchased his 34-foot boat, Cricket, and said, "For me all the regulations are new."
Charter boat captains are already wary of getting caught with alcohol while on tours and Root said he steers clear of even bringing a beer aboard.
"Nobody is drinking alcohol on my boat," said Colby Root, who just started chartering tour groups one month ago on his boat, the Majelann.
"I won't touch the stuff. I won't blow my license on something that stupid," he said. "I don't know any charter captains that drink."
Brittany Retherford can be reached at email@example.com.
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