For thousands of years mariners set off on their voyages trusting in their knowledge of the sea, the seaworthiness of their vessels, the gods and luck, to come home safely. And for thousands of years, when their luck ran out, mariners usually died. For sailors and their families this was part of their bargain with the sea for providing them a living.
Until the 1700s, even as shipbuilding technology made huge advances through the centuries, not much effort was put into figuring out how to survive once the ship had sunk. But by the 1780s, lifeboats were being designed, and in 1882, a Philadelphia inventor named Maria Beasley patented the first “Lifesaving Raft for Use in Case of Shipwreck.”
|Beasely life raft, 1882|
But these inventions only helped when they were installed on vessels, and ship owners resisted the added expense and the regulations which would require them. When the Titanic sank in 1912, with the loss of 1,513 people, the ship was sailing legally with 20 lifeboats- enough for about 40% of the 2,224 passengers. The shock of the disaster got the public’s attention however, and spurred the adoption of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea in 1914, which required lifeboats for all steamship passengers, signaling devices, and improved hull design protocols to make ships better able to survive flooding.
Neither the 1914 Convention nor subsequent safety regulations in the decades following applied to American fishing vessels however. Despite horrendous losses, fishermen and their congressmen maintained the abiding principle that fishermen could weigh the risks themselves and make their own decisions about safety equipment, vessel construction, and training. In vessels under 200 tons they were free to do as they liked- no vessel standards or inspections, no life rafts, no licensed ship’s officers.
No one knows how many Alaskan fishermen died before records began being kept in 1990, but 387 fishermen have died since then. Historians estimate that 10,000 fishermen from Gloucester Massachusetts, have died since 1620, but again, no one knows for sure, since records before1900 are incomplete. But despite the loss of life unparalleled in any other industry, fishermen were off the regulatory map until 1985.
In that year, on August 20, a seine boat crossing Marmot Bay north of Kodiak found the body of Peter Barry, a 20 year old Yale University student, floating in the water. Barry was a crewman on the Western Sea, a 58 foot wooden seine boat built in 1915. He was wearing a life jacket, but no survival suit. The Coast Guard later found two more bodies- twenty five year old Stewart Darling, and Jerard Bouchard, 58, of Coupeville, Washington, the skipper. The two other deckhands were never found- Chris Hofer, 27, of Fort Collins Colorado, and Bill Posey, 24, of Anchorage. The cause of the sinking has never been determined.
Peter Barry had come to Alaska that summer, worked in a cannery for a few weeks, and boarded the Western Sea in July. At first he wrote home to his parents about the romance of working as a commercial fisherman, and about the chance to make far more money on a boat than in a cannery. The work was hard and he was treated as the greenhorn, but he accepted these things. But as the season progressed he wrote that things on the Western Sea were not idyllic. He wanted to get off the boat, but was dissuaded when the captain told him he wouldn’t be paid if he did.
In the investigation which followed the sinking it became apparent that the Western Sea had carried no life raft, no survival suits, no EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and no emergency pump. The crewman Peter Barry replaced told Barry’s father he had been afraid of Bouchard and of the boat and had quit because he feared for his safety. An autopsy later revealed the presence of cocaine in Bouchard’s body.
Barry’s father was dumbfounded and incensed to learn that while doing cocaine at sea was against the law, it was perfectly legal for a 70 year old fishing boat to sail with no safety equipment. There were no vessel standards or inspections for most commercial fishing boats and fishermen were not required to pass any tests or master any skills. A twelve year old boy could set to sea as master of a fishing boat; with the fate of an inexperienced crew, ignorant of the risks involved, in his hands.
But unlike most survivors of dead fishermen who had found themselves dismayed but powerless to change the regulatory structure governing the lives of their loved ones, Robert Barry and his wife Peggy knew their way through the thicket of Federal bureaucracy. Barry had been in the U.S. Foreign Service for twenty five years and had recently been ambassador to Bulgaria. He was on his way to a European Security conference in Stockholm when his son was killed.
He and his wife began meeting with congressmen and working to pass legislation to make safety equipment mandatory on fishing boats. They also hoped to help prevent sinkings in the first place by making fishing vessels subject to technical standards and inspections, and to institute standards and licensing for fishing boat captains and engineers.
The story of their, and others, efforts to get such legislation passed is long, complicated, and in many ways incomplete, but on September 9, 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the “Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988.” It was the first legislation in the United States to specifically mandate safety equipment on commercial fishing vessels.
The CFIVS mandates that life rafts, signaling devices, and immersion suits be carried on fishing vessels; and requires fishermen to conduct drills using that equipment, and to keep logs documenting the drills. The result has been that commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska have dropped from 37 in 1992 to eight in 2014, and 0 in 2015, the first time year there have been no commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska. But still, no law yet requires fishing vessels under 200 gross tons to be built to any standards or be subject to inspection, or for fishing personnel on such boats to be trained and licensed.