Navigating Danger: Safety at Sea in US Waters  - Oceana USA
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January 31, 2024

Navigating Danger: Safety at Sea in US Waters 

An average of 100 million people in the United States go boating every year,1 and in 2022 alone, over 50 million Americans fished.2 With such a significant proportion of the country taking advantage of our oceans, safety at sea has never been more important.  

One tool to improve safety at sea is the Automatic Identification System (AIS). AIS was developed in the wake of the tragic 1989 accident in which the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the surrounding waters. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act (OPA-90) as a result, which directed the Coast Guard to develop a vessel tracking system to improve safety for tankers traveling through Alaska.3 The goal of the resulting device was to increase maritime safety, reduce vessel collisions, and enhance awareness of vessel locations at sea. AIS functions as the “eyes of the boat,” enabling vessels to “see” each other’s location and activity—of critical importance at night and in hazardous conditions.  

AIS devices transmit accurate, real-time data that identify nearby ships and display dynamic positioning information for their surroundings. This vital insight can affect navigational and safety decision-making,4,5 the transparency of this information plays a critical role in ensuring the safety of the workers on these vessels.6 Research has shown AIS devices to be informative, effective tools for collision avoidance, position reporting, external communication, and navigational safety. In a ship operation simulation, participants with AIS information avoided possible collisions faster and more accurately than the group lacking AIS.4, 7, 8  

Nearly 50% of all US fisher deaths between 2000 and 20199 occurred after a vessel disaster. In 2022, a fishing vessel collided with a cruise ship, causing an injury and damage to both vessels.10 Another fishing vessel sank that year, endangering all five crew members while spewing diesel into surrounding waters.11, 12 But despite these ever-present dangers, the United States only mandates vessels over 65 feet to transmit AIS while operating out to 12 nautical miles from shore. 

Conversely, the European Union requires fishing vessels over 49 feet in length to be equipped with AIS. Since this mandate was instituted in 2014, the European Maritime Safety Agency has not reported a year with an increase in marine casualties. In 2021, in fact, the number of fatalities decreased.13  

The United States must strengthen its own navigational safety and collision avoidance mandates rather than relying on unenforceable transnational measures to ensure the safety of its fishers at sea. To improve safety at sea, Oceana recommends that the United States:  

  • Require fishing vessels 49 feet or longer to transmit AIS using Class A devices: Following the EU requirements, require all U.S. fishing vessels 49 feet (15 meters) or longer to carry and transmit AIS on the high seas.  
  • Mandate notification of all AIS-off events: Require U.S. vessels to notify the Coast Guard when a fishing vessel operator stops transmitting AIS within four hours of the halt in transmission.  

By strengthening the mandates that enforce AIS, the United States can protect Americans at sea and around the world. 


1 Owens, Robert. 2023. “Boating Statistics in 2022.” Quicknav. January 1, 2023.  

2 Statista Research Department. 2023. “Number of Participants in Fishing in the United States from 2006 to 2022.” Statista. October 11, 2023. 

3 Barron, Mace G., Deborah N. Vivian, Ron A. Heintz, and Un Hyuk Yim. 2020. “Long-Term Ecological Impacts from Oil Spills: Comparison of Exxon Valdez, Hebei Spirit, and Deepwater Horizon.” Environmental Science & Technology 54 (11): 6456–67. 

4 Bao, Junzhong. 2004. “Impacts of Automatic Identification System on Collision Avoidance Impacts of Automatic Identification System on Collision Avoidance and the Need for Training and the Need for Training.” World Maritime University. 

5 Stitt, I. P. A. 2004. “AIS and Collision Avoidance – a Sense of Déjà Vu.” Journal of Navigation 57 (2): 167–80. 

6 Karthikeyan, P., and Pao-Anne Hsiung. 2022. “Labour Exploitation Investigation Using Satellite Based Vessel Monitoring Systems.” 2022 3rd International Conference on Computing, Analytics, and Networks (ICAN). November 18, 2022.

7 Emmens, Ties, Chintan Amrit, Asad Abdi, and Mayukh Ghosh. 2021. “The Promises and Perils of Automatic Identification System Data.” Expert Systems with Applications 178 (September): 114975. 

8 Hsu, Hua-Zhi, Neil Witt, John B. Hooper, and Anne P. McDermott. 2009. “The AIS-Assisted Collision Avoidance.” Journal of Navigation 62 (04): 657–70. 

9 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 2019. “CDC – Commercial Fishing Safety: Commercial Fishing in the United States – NIOSH Workplace Safety and Health Topic.” June 25, 2019. 

10 Levin, Jake, and Kaitlin McKinley Becker. 2022. “Cruise Ship, Fishing Boat Collide near Nantucket.” NBC Boston. NBC. July 31, 2022. 

11 Ryan, John. 2022. “Fishing Boat That Sank in Orca Waters Ran into Trouble 24 Hours Earlier.” NPR. September 2, 2022. 

12 Washington State Department of Ecology. 2022. “Aleutian Isle Sinking.” September 22, 2022. 

13 European Maritime Safety Agency (ESMA). 2022. “Accident Investigation Publications.” November 30, 2022.