Too many fishermen die on the job. The deaths of five more in the sinking of the Alaska Ranger in the Bering Sea in 2008 drove home that truth once again, and for the fourth time after a fatal accident, the National Transportation Safety Board has said Congress should give the Coast Guard the power to do mandatory inspections of commercial fishing vessels.
That authority is long past due.
The Coast Guard already inspects commercial fishing vessels that work Alaska waters -- but the inspections are voluntary. It's a good program, one that checks on seaworthiness of vessels and lifesaving gear and training. It's raised the level of safety in the fleet and helped reduce the death rate by 42 percent since the early 1990s, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
But the NTSB's Alaska Ranger investigation found flaws in the voluntary program. Inspectors didn't catch the fact that three engineers didn't have required licensing and missed problems with the hull. How much these oversights contributed to the sinking, or if they did at all, isn't clear.
The numbers are clear and grim, however. Despite increased education and attention to safety, fishermen working Alaska waters are still 26 times more likely to die on the job than other U.S. workers. From 1990 to 2008, 346 commercial fishermen died on the job in Alaska.
In Alaska fishing for a living will always be dangerous work, even with more rational seasons. Those who do the job know it's a high-risk business in which stress, weariness, wind, waves and cold work against them. Even the most conscientious safety efforts can't eliminate the risk.
But stricter standards and across-the-fleet inspections can cut the risk and improve chances of avoiding disaster or surviving when disaster strikes.
The story isn't about numbers, rates and percentages. It's about those who lose their lives -- and those who lose their loved ones, like Karen Jacobsen, the daughter of Alaska Ranger captain Peter Jacobsen. Described as a soft-spoken woman, she wants Congress to give the Coast Guard power to demand safer boats.
She shouldn't have to raise her voice.
BOTTOM LINE: Safety standards for the Alaska commercial fishing fleet should be the highest in the world, and the Coast Guard should have the authority to enforce them.