Congress Gives Fishermen 3-Year Reprieve from EPA Regs

Both houses of Congress on Wednesday passed a Coast Guard bill that includes a three-year moratorium on vessel discharge regulations for boats 79 feet and smaller. The bill now goes to the president’s desk for his signature. If the moratorium hadn’t passed, Alaska’s fishing fleet would have had to comply with new regulations the industry claims are unworkable.

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Sen. Barbara Boxer’s bill would’ve lifted the small vessel discharge regs entirely, but the California Democrat said she had to settle for a three-year reprieve.

“It’s the best we can do. And I want the American people and the fishermen to know we tried so hard to get this fixed permanently,” Boxer said, speaking from the Senate floor.

The bill passed the Senate by consent, with no vote. The threat of EPA regulation for “incidental vessel discharges” has been hanging over Alaska’s fishermen for years — and now will loom for at least three more years.  The rules would apply to all kinds of fluids that flow from fishing boats, including bilge water, fish hold effluent and deck wash. Homer fishermen Buck Laukitis has read the regulations the EPA drafted and says the quarterly inspections they require would’ve been difficult. Laukitis says the rules were baffling, too.

“I mean, do you have grease coming out of a shaft of your boat? You know, the propeller shaft. Well, I don’t know. Do I have to dive on that to find out?” Laukitis said.

The agency estimated compliance would cost boat owners less than $140 a year. But Laukitis, whose boat was in Akutan unloading cod as he spoke, says fishermen will have dodged a huge bullet if the moratorium clears Congress.

“We have enough to comply with and to figure out in how to catch a few fish and make some money, let alone having a full-time compliance officer trying to keep track of an EPA permit,” he said.

Republican Sen. David Vitter from Louisiana offered the three-year fix the Senate passed. He didn’t explain why that was preferable to permanently lifting the regulation for fishing boats and other commercial vessels. Sen. Boxer alleges lawmakers aim to use the measure as future leverage.

“I don’t really think they’re objections to the permanency,” Boxer said. “They’re political objections, to try to use this to get some other bad stuff attached to it!”

In Congress, the small vessel discharge regs have been politically linked to rules for ship ballast water. Boxer has insisted on strict rules for ballast water, which can transfer non-native, invasive species from one port to another.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski says the discharge regulations would affect thousands of Alaska’s commercial fishermen. Murkowski says she’ll work for a permanent fix when the new Congress convenes in January.

“We don’t need to inject this uncertainty of our hard-working fishing families. We need to have a permanent solution,” she said.

Murkowski says it will require addressing the ballast water problem, too.

The vessel discharge moratorium is in a bill that keeps the Coast Guard underway for two years. Its sponsor, Sen. Mark Begich, says the bill authorizes $1 billion more than the White House requested to modernize the Coast Guard with new cutters and aircraft.