US senators ask for reconsideration of mask mandates on commercial fishing vessels

Following federal changes to masking guidelines for fully vaccinated citizens, issued on 13 May, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) submitted a letter to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) requesting a revisit and possible revision of federal masking mandates for commercial fishing vessels.

“We encourage the CDC – in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard – to revisit mask-wearing requirements specific to workers in the commercial fishing industry,” the 25 May letter states.

The requirement, issued by the Coast Guard on 1 February and confirmed on 22 March, caused widespread confusion in the industry, as commercial fishing vessels were lumped in with the public and commercial transportation sector.

The Code of Federal Regulations makes clear distinctions between the two, but those were specifically bypassed by the Coast Guard’s interpretation of the CDC’s masking requirement.

As a result, federal leaders have since been working on behalf of the fishing industry to get clarification and revisions to the mandate that make room for safe operations on fishing vessels.

The biggest loophole to the existing regulations is that all fishing vessels are allowed to stipulate what activities onboard would be unsafe while masked, though crew members are required to carry masks for safe operations that are not covered by the vessel’s exemptions, including Coast Guard boarding.

The owner and operator of a commercial fishing vessel on the U.S. East Coast provided National Fisherman a list of the exemptions it has requested, which include numerous activities that take place on a daily basis on an average commercial fishing vessel.

In a press release, Murkowski and Hassan backed changing the current Coast Guard rules to accomodate commercial fishermen's needs for maskless communication and other activities.

“It is worth noting that wearing a mask on a fishing vessel may increase safety risks for operators and crew," they said in a press release. "Fishing vessels frequently use loud motors or machinery that can make it difficult for crew members to hear one another, so they may rely on lip-reading to improve communication and work together safely. Masks are also frequently wet from sea spray, which can make it more difficult to breathe. This is a condition that the CDC has generally recognized is problematic. Despite these facts, fishermen have continued to abide by the order and guidance to address the public health threat posed by COVID-19. We urge the CDC and the Coast Guard to work swiftly together to reconsider their guidance as it applies to commercial fishing vessels in order to promote the safe operation of fishing vessels and safety of the crew.”

Reporting by Jessica Hathaway

Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard


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