Anyone who has watched an episode of the reality TV show, “The Deadliest Catch,” knows the dangers inherent in commercial fishing. Now consider that the average commercial fishing boat in the U.S. Virgin Islands is only 17 feet and operated by one or two fishermen, whose livelihood depends on their profession, in tranquil waters that can turn wild at any minute.
Enter a volunteer project by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas in the Virgin Islands that is putting much-needed survival kits—free—into local commercial fishermen’s hands.
The idea started two years ago when St. Thomas-based auxiliary member Jim “CC” Kreglo learned from Howard and Jan French, at Caribbean Inflatable Boats & Life Rafts in St. Thomas, that the expired life-saving supplies they replaced during routing refitting of cruise ship life rafts were being thrown away because the company didn’t have storage space. Kreglo knew that most of these supplies had a life that far outlasted the stamped expiration date. Flares, for example, lose only about one percent of their potency annually.
Kreglo collected the supplies over time and stored them in his office at Compass Point Marina. Then, while on assignment as an EMT trainer for the Commercial Emergency Response Team in Florida, he networked with the organization to get about 100 canvas backpacks donated. An auxiliary member with a plane volunteered to deliver the backpacks to St. Thomas at no cost. The backpacks provided Kreglo and his fellow members with a vehicle to create individual kits with the supplies that the fishermen could easily keep on board to grab in case of emergency.
Some 460 commercial fishermen in the U.S. Virgin Islands are required to renew their licenses annually in July. The auxiliary contacted the St. Thomas Fisherman’s Association and timed the first kit distribution for May 2008 at the Frenchtown Community Center. Twelve auxiliary members met with a packed room of fishermen, taking time to explain the kits’ contents and uses.
“We have two requirements in order for commercial fishermen to receive a kit,” Kreglo says. “First, that they be registered commercial fishermen. Secondly, that they own a boat.”
Duane Minton, the St. Croix-based commander for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in the Virgin Islands, says, “One of the nicest “thank yous” we received was when a fisherman said no one in a blue uniform had given them anything by a citation before. This survival kit project helped us get to know this close-knit community. The beauty of the auxiliary is that we conduct free vessel safety checks and can make safety recommendations to fishermen, but we don’t have enforcement powers and therefore don’t write tickets.”
Auxiliary members have since met with Northside St. Thomas fishermen at Hull Bay and handed out kits to the smaller community of commercial fishermen on St. John. About 100 kits have been distributed so far and this summer the group will expand the program to St. Croix. Inquires have even come from Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands.
While expanding, the auxiliary has been innovating. “One of the toughest things to see during a helicopter search and rescue mission is a person floating in the water,” says Minton. The kits now contain 300 feet of signal tape similar to the bright yellow crime scene tape police use. A fishermen stranded in the water can unravel the tape and both the color and increased surface area of floating material can aid searchers. After experiments revealed that the tape will sink if deployed from an anchored boat in calm conditions, the kits now contain a balloon that fishermen can quickly inflate and tie on the end to keep the tape from sinking.
“Many of us know someone who went to sea and didn’t come back,” Kreglo says. “If our kits can save just one life, the project will be well worth it.”
SURVIVAL KIT CONTENTS
- AM radio
- Emergency rations
- Emergency water
- First aid kit
- Information card
- Insect repellent
- Plastic kitchen bag
- Rocket flares
- Signal mirror
- Signal smoke canisters
- Signal tape
- Thermal blanket
- Thermal protective suit
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.