Fishing Expeditions

Why fishermen who used to welcome the Coast Guard have started to dread it.


There was a time not long ago when, to most commercial fishermen, the mention of the name "Coast Guard" evoked the image of a sleek, white cutter knifing its way through towering seas toward a rescue. The Guard was the fisherman's friend, ready and willing to save his life.

But times have changed dramatically. Last May 19, California salmon fisherman Jim Blaes drew a line in the waters of Santa Cruz Harbor, at the northern reach of Monterey Bay, and dared the Coast Guard to cross it. Blaes claimed he'd "had a gutful" of the Coast Guard's surprise safety boardings, and refused to allow officers from the 100-foot cutter Chico aboard his 36-foot Helja unless they left their guns behind.

The Coasties refused his demand, resulting in a tense two-day standoff. During the impasse, the Chico, accompanied by a 40-foot patrol boat and a helicopter, shadowed Blaes as he negotiated via cellular phone, granted press interviews, and caught some salmon. At one point he told his pursuers, "I think enough of the U.S. Constitution to give up my life for it. If you think enough of it to violate it, then come ahead." Finally the Guard backed off, turning the matter over to the Department of Justice for legal action.

"I was sick of the Coast Guard harassing me," says Blaes, a lifelong fisherman who was armed during the incident with a gun he reportedly uses to protect himself from sharks. "I've been boarded 40 times in the past nine years, and I've repeatedly told them the boardings violate my Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches undertaken without suspicion that a crime has been committed. We've hassled plenty over the issue, and frankly, I thought this time things might turn violent."

Blaes is not alone in his exasperation. Many fishermen say the Guard, once their ally, now exerts itself as much to disrupt lives as to save them.

What happened to make the Guard go from heroism to harassment? The war on drugs. In the 1980s, every fishing vessel became a suspect (or "target," in Coast Guard parlance), and heavily armed young Coasties added a new dimension to fishermen's timeless concern about the dangers at sea. Within the decade, that same zealotry helped mold the Guard's belligerent at-sea enforcement of new vessel-safety regulations. Now fishermen who have always trusted the Coast Guard have also learned to fear it.

The Coast Guard's heritage–one still honored by most of its 36,000 members–is saving lives. Its creed remains, "We have to go out, but we don't have to come back."

Consider, for instance, Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, a sentry post at the mouth of the serpentine Columbia River dividing Washington and Oregon. A tiny "Cape D." crew tends the Columbia River Bar, where west-running river and east-running Pacific Ocean roil together over a shallow sandpit, pushing waves to 30 feet. There, the Coasties crash to sea in 41-foot "rollover" rescue boats designed to right themselves after capsizing, snatching disabled mariners from the deep. Assignment to the Cape D. rescue squad remains the most sought-after job in the entire Coast Guard–a testament to the valor of the smallest of the nation's armed forces.

Fishermen in many regions applaud the Guard's search-and-rescue efforts. "Nobody's better at it; I feel as safe as I ever did knowing they're around," says Florida shrimper Eric Schmidt. "Recently, lightning struck a friend of mine's boat. Everything was fried–batteries, pumps, even the engine's starter motor. He was sinking, but the Coast Guard arrived in 20 minutes. Saved him and the boat. They were awesome."

On Labor Day, skilled Guardsmen rescued several fishermen whose boats capsized 100 miles west of Eureka, California, when a surprise storm swept through the region's tuna fleet. "We save lives, plain and simple–that's our job," says Cmdr. Bryant Weaver of Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay, whose helicopters yanked the terrified fishermen from open seas.

Search and Bust

During the past 20 years, however, the Coast Guard has undertaken a slew of law enforcement duties–enough, in fact, to consume nearly half its projected $3.9 billion budget for 1997. "There are just a lot more laws to enforce these days, including drug interdiction and alien smuggling, plus regulations that state and federal agencies impose to conserve fish stocks," notes Lt. Fred Myer, a staff officer in the Guard's Washington, D.C., law enforcement division.

The first big shift in Coast Guard policy and dollars, from search-and-rescue to search-and-bust, came in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration implemented a draconian "Zero Tolerance" program aimed at interdicting ocean-going drug runners. Under the Z.T. plan, a vessel owner could have his boat and fish seized if anyone aboard possessed so much as a joint–with or without the captain's knowledge. The result: Skippers became cops too, forced to interrogate the crew and, at times, search their personal belongings. This further stressed an industry that, between difficult weather, increased regulation, uncertain markets, and depressed fish stocks, could ill afford it.

It also cost suspect fishermen a pile of money, even in cases where boats and gear were seized but later returned when the feds couldn't make a case. Fueling the cops-and-robbers Z.T. fiasco, fishermen who failed to pay a fine if found guilty of a violation had their vessels and/or equipment turned over to the Customs Service, if guilty of a drug violation, or to the National Marine Fisheries Service, in the case of a fishing violation, to be auctioned off.

Big drug busts made big news, especially in Coast Guard District 7. That's a watery highway of 1.8 million square miles, stretching from the southeast U.S. coast to Puerto Rico, transited by shrimp boats and small freighters smuggling pot or cocaine from Latin America. It was not uncommon during the early 1980s for deep-bellied shrimpers to be caught with up to 20 tons of grass. The same held true for coke; even in 1995, the Coast Guard seized over 18,000 kilograms of it in District 7.

At some point in the hunt, an authoritarian Z.T. mentality came to permeate the Coast Guard's ranks. Boarding crews seemed to live for the bust, often losing sight of personal rights in their effort to catch drug runners. Cutters displayed marijuana-and-coca-leaf decals on the sides of their cabins, like notches in a pistol butt, as their hunt for drug smugglers became competitive. Meanwhile, fishing vessels everywhere–especially off Florida and California–became suspects, as well as slow-moving targets.

A Recipe for Abuse

Predictably, problems arose. "Zero Tolerance, combined with the Coast Guard's attitude, created a recipe for abuse and harassment," notes David Paul Horan, a maritime lawyer in Key West, Florida. "One particular case comes to mind. In 1988, an 80-foot shrimper belonging to a man named David Phelps was boarded off the Florida coast, supposedly to look for drugs or stowaways. But within minutes, the Coasties were going through every compartment on board. Finally, at the bottom a one-foot-by-two-foot trash can, beneath a gooey pile of spit tobacco, they found four marijuana seeds. Bam, busted, boat seized–just like that. The whole thing was so outrageous that we had to take up the matter with officials in Washington, D.C., to get it dropped."

California fisherman Steve Kelly offers this bizarre Z.T. tale: "I was fishing for rock cod near Point Conception (near Santa Barbara), driving in circles, zig-zags and figure-eights, staring at my depth sounder, looking for fish. Meanwhile, I could hear a conversation on my marine radio between a Coast Guard patrol boat and a Coast Guard helicopter. They were discussing the suspicious activities of a certain boat–my boat. Finally, they called me and told me to prepare for a boarding. Then, suddenly, the patrol boat radioed for a medical airlift for one of its own crewmen. Apparently, he accidentally shot himself in the ear while readying his weapon for the boarding."

Undaunted, Kelly says, the Coasties persevered. "They radioed for a 90-foot cutter from Marina Del Rey to come search my boat once I anchored. The cutter ran 150 miles to the area, accosted us in the middle of the night and made us huddle on the back deck in our skivvies while they searched my boat. All they found was fish."

Often, even fish couldn't stop a good drug search. "One time, a boarding crew took a long, skinny aluminum pole and poked it repeatedly into bins of shrimp aboard my boat," says one Texas shrimper. "When they began, I had a boatload of $7-a-pound whole shrimp. When they finished, I had $1-a-pound shrimp pieces. There was no need to do it, since I was at the dock, waiting to unload. All they had to do was wait a few minutes and watch the shrimp come out of the hold on a conveyor."

Adds Florida fisherman Eric Schmidt, "The Coast Guard pulled 600 pounds of grouper out of my fish hold and laid them on deck in the blazing sun while they looked for dope. When they were through, the fish were cooked. Who pays for that? I do."

Dennis Henderson, a fisherman who revered the Coast Guard all his life, remembers the day in 1991 when his opinion changed. "I was piloting one of several shrimpers I own, heading from Fort Myers, Florida, to Key West, a 120-mile run," he recalls. "The Coast Guard spotted me through the fog off Fort Myers and sent officers aboard, to check compliance with federal safety regulations." That's when his nightmare began.

"They herded us to the back deck and held us at gunpoint like criminals–me, my wife, and my crew," Henderson recalls. "They wouldn't even let us go to the bathroom. Then they ripped the boat apart, stem to stern. They were obviously looking for drugs, and the 'safety inspection' claim was just an excuse to get aboard. Finally, they simply let us go. No citation. No apology. No cleanup. No nothing."

Shrimper Julius Collins tells a similar tale, about the time he and his crew stood, terrified, while nervous, teenaged Coast Guardsmen held shotguns on them amid steep, rolling seas. Meanwhile, fellow Coasties gruffly rummaged through his boat, looking for whatever contraband they could find. "It's humiliating and damned dangerous," Collins says. "It's a miracle nobody's been killed during at-sea inspections, either accidentally or on purpose."

One Louisiana fisherman even remembers the time a Coastie who had yet to find his sea legs stumbled and dropped his shotgun on the deck. The fisherman picked up the weapon and handed it back to the young man, saying, "This is yours; I believe you were holding it on me."

Safety Catch

Under fire for its zealous pursuit of personal-use drug cases, the Coast Guard unofficially mellowed its Z.T. program in the late 1980s, choosing to focus instead on nabbing large-scale traffickers. Meanwhile, vessel safety was coming into the spotlight, following the death of a U.S. ambassador's son during a fishing boat disaster in Alaska's Bering Sea.

"At the time, the fishing industry was seeking relief from high insurance costs by limiting boat owners' liability," recalls Rod Moore, a former House Merchant Marine Fisheries Committee staffer and a man who helped write the complex, much-debated Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988. "Congress, however, chose to implement tough safety regs instead, a move that consumer groups and the American Trial Lawyers Association, neither of which favored liability limits, lobbied heavily for."

The Safety Act required fishermen to buy life rafts, emergency radio beacons, fire extinguishers, flares, and "survival suits"–insulated garments worn as a protection against the chill of the sea. Some fishermen praised the new law, but others, especially small-boat fishermen who work near shore, said the safety gear was too expensive ($10,000, plus $1,500 annually for upkeep and recertification) and took up too much space. The high cost, they claimed, forced them to forgo other important safety measures, such as yearly drydocking. Some even claimed that the bulky, 100-pound life rafts rendered their small boats unstable.

One particularly harsh critic was Alan Dujenski, who served 20 years with the Coast Guard (the last five in marine safety) and who now works for a marine insurance brokerage in Seattle. He says the whole safety program was hastily crafted, is rudely enforced, and generally misses the mark.

"Most casualties are caused by a lack of vessel stability, a lack of [a hull's] watertight integrity, insufficient bilge-pumping systems, fatigue, and a lack of seamanship education," Dujenski says. "It's as if the Coast Guard is saying, 'We know your vessel is going to sink, but at least you can save yourself when it does.' The regulations perpetuate the idea that safety equipment is a St. Christopher medal that will protect you from harm. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Though admitting flaws in the safety program, Coast Guard officials note that the number of lives lost after notification of an emergency has dropped significantly since passage of the Safety Act, from over 1,000 per year to fewer than 500. This, they claim, is significant for fishermen, who have the riskiest job in the United States (155 fatalities per 100,000 workers annually, according to the latest available government figures).

Gregory Sharp, crewman aboard a 53-foot fishing boat that capsized in frigid seas off the Washington coast in July 1990, was one of the first ones saved. "She went down in 20 seconds," he recalls. "I barely had time to get scared, let alone grab a survival suit." Sharp hung on to floating debris. "I noticed our [emergency beacon] had floated free," he says. "Its strobe light was blinking, so I figured its radio signal was working, too."

A Russian satellite picked up the emergency signal and relayed it to a station in Illinois. It was then relayed to Seattle and finally to a Coast Guard unit in Astoria, Oregon, across the Columbia River from the famous Cape D. rescue squad. An hour later, Sharp was safe. He offers this message for fishermen reluctant to install the $2,000 radio beacons: "If you can't justify the expense, just ask my wife and children if it's worth it. Better yet, ask your own."

Bellicose Boardings

But the real problem with the Safety Act is the manner in which the Coast Guard enforces it, especially the boardings. Ostensibly intended to check compliance with the law, "most boardings are courteous affairs, undertaken by highly educated, well-trained, respectful officers," says Cmdr. Steve Austin, a New England Coast Guard law enforcement officer. Some fishermen agree. One even recalls the time he was boarded, inspected, then invited to the Coast Guard cutter to eat T-bone steak, drink wine, and swap sea stories.

Many fishermen, however, say Coasties packing guns and leftover Z.T. attitudes bully their way aboard boats, checking everything from rafts to the size of ship's bell (rarely used for signaling in modern times) or the height of letters on a required placard noting that the discharge of oil is prohibited. These sometimes belligerent searches, which a single boat might endure several times per year, can result in fines approaching $1,000 for a minute violation.

"For the most part, boarding crews have been arrogant, treated us like dirt, hazed us, and responded callously to our inquiries and objections regarding their behavior," noted Mary Wergeland, spokeswoman for a group of 40 Washington, Oregon, and California fishermen, in a September 1993 letter to the executive secretary of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Council.

"Unfortunately, it's human nature," notes Rod Moore, head of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association. "For years, the Coast Guard was virtually on a wartime footing, engaged primarily in drug and alien interdiction. They faced considerable danger when stopping vessels, since there were cases where innocent-appearing boats were loaded with drugs and high-caliber weapons. That experience, however, bled over into more mundane activity, like safety and fisheries inspections."

"In addition, boarding crews are all different," confides a Coast Guard training officer who asked to remain anonymous. "Some check big-ticket items like life rafts. Others check for charts that are rarely, if ever, used. Attitudes vary, too, as does knowledge about fishermen and their operations. And if fishermen give boarding officers any crap, things just get worse, like a motorist jawing at a traffic cop."

Complicating matters, Coast Guard crews rotate around the country, so a young officer who has, say, been on white-knuckle duty off the Florida coast may not carry the right knowledge or attitude when boarding a trawler in Alaska's Bering Sea.

"I've seen the Coast Guard detain the entire 80-man crew of a 200-foot factory ship (which harvests and processes fish at sea) in the Bering Sea for six hours while they searched the vessel like Gestapo, looking for safety or fisheries violations," says Joe Easley, head of the Oregon Trawl Commission, a seafood promotion and lobbying group. "Can you imagine how much that costs, in terms of lost production? And then there's the humiliation of being herded around the deck like a bunch of cattle."

A Fed-up Fleet

That's why, when California salmon fisherman Jim Blaes held off a Coast Guard boarding party for two days last May, few fishermen were surprised. In July, Blaes pleaded "not guilty" to a charge that he "knowingly and forcibly resisted, opposed, impeded, intimidated and interfered with Coast Guard officers engaged in their official duties." At press time, the trial was set for late October.

Following the Blaes incident, fishermen rushed to defend the man they consider a lightning rod for a fed-up fleet of harvesters. "Jim Blaes is no wacko or anti-government kook," says Pietro Parravano, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a lobbying group for several California fishermen's organizations. "He did what a lot of other fishermen would like to do."

An angry Zeke Grader, PCFFA's executive director, likens the Coast Guard's at-sea safety boardings to "firemen, brandishing weapons, knocking on your door at 2 a.m., demanding to inspect your fire alarms and, in the course of inspections, sifting through the rest of your house, even your bedroom drawers. It really doesn't matter whether they're courteous or whether fire prevention is a laudable goal. Fact is, you've been awakened, there are intruders in your home, and your privacy has been violated, all for the sake of, perhaps, citing you for a weak battery in your smoke detector. It's time the government established new procedures for boarding fishing boats."

Federal law grants the Coast Guard authority to board any vessel operating in U.S. waters or any U.S. boat operating anywhere in the world to review documents, conduct safety inspections, or search for drugs, illegal aliens, fisheries violations, or whatever else they choose. The applicable statute dates to June 1878. But its antecedents date to 1790, when the Coast Guard's predecessor–the Revenue Cutter Service–was granted equally broad authority to board vessels at sea.

"Back then, the idea was to ensure that cargo ships landing at East Coast ports paid import taxes and tariffs levied by our new country," explains Lt. Fred Myer. Intercepting gun runners who might arm a counterrevolution was also a high priority. "Certainly, our mission has broadened considerably since then, to include search-and-rescue, maintenance of aids to navigation, environmental protection, and enforcement of fisheries and safety laws," Myer says. "But our authority to conduct searches remains the same."

Despite Jim Blaes's and other fishermen's respect for the Constitution, they may have trouble defending themselves with it. The courts have repeatedly upheld the Coast Guard's right to search vessels at sea, dancing gingerly around seamen's legal expectation of a "reasonable right of privacy" and general Fourth Amendment protections. Justices typically lean toward the side of government, citing the dangerous, near-overwhelming task of keeping drug runners, illegal aliens, fisheries violators, and unsafe vessels off U.S. waterways.

Stilling the Waters?

Remarkably, no fishermen or Coasties have been killed or seriously injured during boardings in recent memory (25,000 are conducted per year on all types of vessels). Coast Guard officials also report that in the past two years, only 13 fishermen have had to be subdued, handcuffed, or arrested, either for verbal or physical assaults on boarding officers ("mostly when they flex beer muscles," says one boarding officer).

Still, there is potential for disaster. "Somebody's going to get killed unless boarding policies change; it's inevitable," predicts one Florida shrimper. "It'll probably happen at night, when these guys storm onto a boat unannounced with pistols, automatic weapons and mace, startling a fisherman from a sound sleep. And believe me, plenty of fishermen sleep with guns beneath their pillows. Coast Guardsmen know it, too, and that makes them edgy and fearful as well. The whole thing is a formula for disaster and will only get better when boarding policies are changed."

To reduce the chances of a disaster, the Coast Guard has established training schools for its officers, as well as industry/agency working groups in several districts. It has also developed a program by which fishermen can volunteer for dockside safety inspections, with no fear of citations, just a "fix it" list of items to purchase or repair. Once a fisherman has fully complied, he receives a decal, which he affixes to the boat's cabin window.

Despite its good intentions, the dockside program has created confusion and helped aggravate ill-will over at-sea boardings. Bob Jones of the Southeast Fisheries Association argues that "the safety decal should indicate that a fisherman has demonstrated compliance and should tell the Coast Guard 'hands off.' A lot of fishermen believe that's the case, and are alarmed and angered when they're subsequently boarded at sea for safety inspections."

But "regardless of what fishermen believe, the safety decal doesn't guarantee they won't be boarded," cautions Cmdr. Steve Austin, who works with a Coast Guard/Commercial Fishing Law Enforcement Group in New England, a forum through which the two sides exchange ideas. "[Fishing boats] may look fine at the dock, but if they're not up to par at sea, people die."

Most fishermen agree that continued training programs, workshops, and friendly dockside inspections that exempt them from repeated at-sea boardings would promote safety and help ease relations with the Guard. Given the Guard's broad authority, Congress should ban inspections of vessels with dockside safety decals. Although Coast Guard Commandant Robert Kramek has mandated that such boardings be "cursory," fishermen complain that the directive is not being followed.

At least one Coast Guard officer who works in Bob Jones's region believes friendly, dockside boardings promote safety better than tense, adversarial encounters at sea. "We've seen fewer emergency cases since full implementation of the dockside safety program," notes Lt. Rich Gonzales, fishing vessel safety coordinator for the infamous 7th District. "When fishermen are tied to the pier for an inspection, they don't lose money, weather isn't a factor, and we have the time to relax, talk, and educate," says Gonzales. "As a result, we get compliance without having to intrude on their fishing operations. This is how the program is supposed to work and how it should be implemented."

Mick Kronman (MKronman@aol.com), a former commercial fisherman, is a Santa Barbara-based writer who specializes in maritime issues.