Senate okays vessel ballast water relief

Coast Guard authorization bill would also improve oversight of ships posing oil spill risk

Legislation to relieve commercial fishing vessel owners and operators from federal and state regulations for ballast water and other incidental discharges has passed the U.S. Senate and heads back to the U.S. House after the Thanksgiving break for final consideration.

The Vessel Incident Discharge Act is contained within the Frank Lobiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018, which passed the Senate on Nov.14.

Jerry McCune, president of Cordova District Fishermen United, said the ballast water provisions were critical. After several years of temporary exemptions, the commercial fleet was waiting for a solution he said.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I didn’t know if they would even get to it this year. It’s the most important thing that we were watching.”

“VIDA will provide Alaska’s fishermen with a long-sought peace of mind from the threat of federal regulation,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a co-sponsor of the legislation.

Provisions within VIDA would provide a permanent exemption on incidental vessel discharge for all commercial fishing vessels and commercial vessels under 79 feet in length. Without that exemption, small vessel operators and fishermen would have to get Environmental Protection Agency permits even for basic activities, like vessel deck runoff, hosing out fish holds and other minor discharges.

The Senate’s action drew quick criticism from Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. The vessel discharge legislation is “a significant blow to the Clean Water Act’s ability to protect rivers, estuaries and lakes from harmful invasive species.

“The Coast Guard has never upheld its obligation to fight the spread of aquatic species in ballast water,” Hartl said. “This new law makes matters worse by allowing them to shirk that responsibility for years or decades to come.”

Sullivan, along with Senators John Thune, R-SD, Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that the language in VIDA also offers a comprehensive fix to a broken regulatory framework by establishing a single, nationally uniform standard for regulation of ballast water and other vessel discharges.

The Coast Guard authorization package also included several other provisions, including a Jones Act waiver secured by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, that would allow the newly built F/V America’s Finest to fish in U.S. waters. The controversy over the vessel arose because of the amount of foreign steel in the $75 million vessel built at Dakota Creek Industries in Anacortes, WA.

“We were able to work on a solution to save good family-wage jobs at the Dakota Creek Shipyard,” Cantwell said.

Also included in the overall package were provisions improving oversight of ships that pose oil spill risks, recapitalization of the icebreaker Polar Star and improved paid family leave policies for Coast Guard members and their families and requiring examination of a Coast Guard ROTC program.

Other provisions direct the Coast Guard to conduct persistent aircraft-based surveillance in monitoring illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Western Pacific, and requiring the Coast Guard to have tested the capability of oil spill vessel response plans in Alaskan waters and report to Congress on those capabilities, and give the Coast Guard more flexibility in choosing which shipyards are used for vessel alterations and repairs, to allow for more work to remain in Alaska.

Seafood Harvesters of America, whose members include CDFU, hailed the legislation as a breakthrough for the commercial fishing industry that was a long time coming.

“We now have regulatory certainty for our businesses instead of operating under stopgap exemptions to these regulations,” said Chris Brown, president of the harvesters’ association.

Leah Habegger, executive director of the association, also applauded the bipartisan bill.

“Nothing united fishermen more than the waters we navigate and the commitment we share to protect them,” Habegger said. “With the passation of this bill, fishermen are freed from the fear of having to remain tied to the docks from erroneous regulations. They can now focus on responsibly harvesting domestic seafood employed by millions of consumers every day.”

Seafood Harvesters represents over 3,900 small businesses and organizations. Its membership, in addition to CDFU includes Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, Fishing Vessel Owners Association, the North Pacific Fisheries Association, Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association, United Catcher Boats and others.

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