In spite of pleas from Sen. Lisa Murkowski and others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Coast Guard still say that fishing personnel must wear masks aboard boats.
For many Alaska fishermen, having a mask over their nose and mouth during fishing operations is akin to being waterboarded, as wet, slimy masks are difficult to breathe through, create visual barriers, and prevent communication.
Earlier this month, Murkowski and Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) wrote to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and Coast Guard Admiral Karl Schultz, requesting they update their mask policies.
Meanwhile, the CDC has updated its mask policies for cruise ships. Passengers who are fully vaccinated may remove masks when outdoors, as long as they are not in crowds, according to the CDC’s updated operations manual for cruise lines.
“Cruise ship operators, at their discretion, may advise passengers and crew that — if they are fully vaccinated — they may gather or conduct activities outdoors, including engaging in extended meal service or beverage consumption, without wearing a mask except in crowded settings,” the CDC manual says.
But CDC still requires passengers and crew to wear masks on all planes, buses, trains, and other forms of transportation, and that includes fishing vessels.
“In response to the CDC guidance published on May 13, 2021, the commercial fishing community has expressed confusion about the implementation of the new guidance on fishing vessels that are operating with all fully vaccinated staff. In response, we sought clarification from the Coast Guard about whether fully vaccinated commercial fishing crew are still required to wear masks. On May 14, 2021, Coast Guard personnel confirmed that the agency would need to wait for changes to the CDC Mask Order and associated CDC guidance for conveyances and transportation hubs before it could revise its Marine Safety Information Bulletin and address requirements for fishing vessels,” Murkowski wrote in her letter to the CDC and Coast Guard.
Murkowski noted that masks create a safety hazard on fishing vessels, where crew communicate over loud motors or machinery noises, and they rely extensively on lip-reading to help them understand each other.
“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,” Murkowski wrote, urging changes to the federal policy.
National Fisherman provided its readers with a list of activities in which wearing a mask would create a safety hazard for onboard workers:
- On-deck tasks which necessitate removing a mask to perform duties due to safety hazards from slime- or water-covered masks causing difficulty breathing.
- When the crew needs to communicate with each other or the captain, as the captain is hearing impaired and needs to see the facial expressions and lips of the crew.
- Shoveling fish into bins.
- Hauling in net and anytime the net reel is in motion.
- Manning the net reel while in operation.
- Stacking boxes of fish.
- Wash down of the deck.
- Unloading fish boxes at the dock.
- Jumping on or off the boat while docking or departing.
- Tying lines to secure equipment or the boat itself.
- Any activity where there is communication between the crew and captain as the captain has hearing loss and needs to see facial expressions and lip movement.
The most recent Coast Guard bulletin states: “Operators of vessels and sea ports that fail to implement [the mask wearing order] may be subject to civil or criminal penalties. Vessels that have not implemented the mask requirement may be issued a Captain of the Port order directing the vessel’s movement and operations; repeated failure to impose the mask mandate could result in civil and/or criminal enforcement action. Additionally, after taking into account operational considerations, the COTP may issue orders prohibiting vessels from mooring at a sea port that fails to implement the CDC guidelines or refer non-compliance with CDC’s guidelines for further civil or criminal enforcement action.”
It’s unclear if this federal mandate pertains to sport fishing charters.