Frustration mounts as CDC keeps face mask rules for commercial fishing crews

Boats in a river
Naknek’s in-river opener on July 18, 2019. (Sage Smiley/KDLG)

Joe Trotter has fished in Bristol Bay for 13 years, in Egegik on the east side of the bay. He strongly disagrees with federal rules requiring people on commercial vessels to wear face masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“I think it’s ridiculous that they’re asking us to wear masks,” he said.

Trotter’s crewmembers on the F/V Seahag will all be vaccinated. Since they don’t come into contact with anyone else during the season, spreading the virus to others isn’t really a possibility, he said.

“If you go into shore, or you go into Dillingham, you go into Naknek, if you go on land somewhere, yeah, okay. But requiring us to have a mask on our fishing boat while we’re fishing? No. That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’m not going to have my crew do that. It’s a safety issue, if nothing else.”

But he’s up against the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Coast Guard.

Both agencies say crew on commercial fishing vessels need to wear face masks.

The Coast Guard says crew members can take masks off for specific tasks if it’s unsafe to wear them, but when finished, they have to put the masks right back on.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is also frustrated by the rules.

At a recent Senate hearing, she worried fishing crews would be more concerned about the liability of noncompliance rather than their immediate safety.

“This is more a safety hazard than anything out — you’re out on a boat, the winds are howling, your mask is soggy wet. Tell me. Tell me how anyone thinks this is a sane and a sound policy to do,” she said.

This week, Murkowski and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan wrote a letter to the CDC and Coast Guard asking them to work together to exempt commercial fishermen from the mask requirement.

They pointed out that the CDC has loosened its recommendations for fully vaccinated people in general, but not commercial fishing crews.

The CDC has lumped commercial fishing vessels in with all other forms of public transportation where face masks are required.

Murkowski and Hassan said they support masking on public transportation like planes, trains and buses, but commercial fishing vessels are different.

Trotter, the Egegik fisherman, agrees.

“Most of the time we can’t hear each other on the boat, and we read lips or facial expressions,” he said. “It’s kind of important to have that on the boat for communication, for safety. And when you can’t hear what they’re saying, facial expressions are important.”

According to the letter, the Coast Guard told the senators it couldn’t change its mask requirements until the CDC changed its order. The CDC did not respond to a request for comment Thursday about whether it planned to change its rules.

And the mask rules do come with penalties. According to the Coast Guard, repeated failure to comply could result in “civil and/or criminal enforcement action.”

In an email, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Kurt Fredrickson said, “We will be checking for compliance during the course of regular business.”

But they won’t deploy separate teams to check for face masks.

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