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East Coast Shipwrecks Confounding

January 20, 1999

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ For 21 years, Joe Crumb has worked on clamming boats up and down the East Coast, and every time he buttons up his canvas coveralls and steps onto the deck of the Arthur M., he knows he is courting danger.

``If anything happens, you’ve got nowhere to go,″ Crumb, 40, said as he stood next to the 105-foot vessel on a dock littered with broken clamshells. ``If the boat goes, you’re a goner.″

In the past two weeks, as many as 10 clam fishermen have met such a fate off the East Coast.

The sinking Monday of the Adriatic, a 74-footer with four crew members, marked the fourth serious accident involving an East Coast clamming vessel since Jan. 6. The crewmen are presumed dead.

The wrecks _ three off New Jersey, one off Massachusetts _ have underscored the unforgiving nature of commercial fishing, which is ranked the most dangerous occupation in America by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, with 131 deaths a year per 100,000 employees.

Still, veteran seamen and marine science experts alike are stunned by the rash of accidents.

``I’m as dumbfounded as everyone else,″ said Tom McCoy, fisheries administrator for the state Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. ``Over the years, there have been periodic problems, where boats sank for one reason or another. But it’s unusual to have this many in so short a time span.″

The string of accidents began when the 84-foot Beth Dee Bob sank in rough seas off Manasquan. Two crew members died and two others are presumed dead.

Two days later, the 107-foot Cape Fear went down off the coast of New Bedford, Mass., killing two.

On Sunday, the 65-foot Ellie B. struck a jetty in Manasquan when its skipper fell asleep at the wheel. Three crew members jumped overboard and were rescued.

On Monday, the Adriatic got caught in a squall as it made its way down the coast toward Atlantic City for repairs. After issuing a frantic mayday call, the boat went down in about 60 feet of water off Barnegat.

``It’s serious when one goes down. It’s very serious when two go down. It’s tragic when more than two go down,″ said Jack O’Dell, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington. The Coast Guard will investigate the wrecks, individually and collectively, to see if there is some common cause.

In both fatal New Jersey wrecks, the boats sank during storms while returning to shore loaded with clams. The cause of the Cape Fear’s sinking, which happened in relatively mild weather, has not been determined.

Some of those in the marine industry say clamming boat owners put profits ahead of safety, sending fishermen out in bad weather and overloading the vessel.

New Jersey leads the nation in surf clam harvesting, with $27 million worth landed at docks last year. Typically, 500 to 1,000 bushels are harvested per trip. Manned by three- to five-member crews, clam boats generally go out for 24 hours at a time. Each crewmen makes about $1,500 a week.

The boats use huge steel dredges to scrape clams off the ocean floor. The dredges, which are controlled by hydraulic winches, dump the catch into steel cylinders and onto a belt, where the clams are washed and sorted.

The clams are then dumped into steel cages, brought ashore and taken by truck to processing plants for sale as clam strips, minced clams or clam chowder.

When loaded, the cages can weigh more than 3,000 pounds each. The Adriatic was said to be carrying 27 full cages when it went down.

In 1990, the state modified regulations to eliminate weekly quotas for clam harvesting. The idea was to stop skippers trying to meet their quota from heading out to sea in spite of severe weather warnings, said James Joseph, state director of shell fisheries.

Now, there is a 600,000-bushel annual limit for the 57 boats with licenses to harvest clams in state waters.

Rik Van Hemmen of Red Bank, an engineer and marine consultant whose firm investigates sinkings and groundings, said operators of fishing boats get lulled into ignoring safety procedures.

``People realize the dangers, but if nothing happens, they take gradually more risks. Over time, safety features disappear and they start to stretch into a range where they’re more dangerous,″ Van Hemmen said. ``It’s what we call human failure.″

Still, he said the sinkings may just be a coincidence: ``Once something like this rears its head, it’s seen as a trend, but that’s not always the case.″

But some clammers are shaken.

``Nothing happens like this for five years, then all of a sudden, bam, bam, bam,″ said Jack Willis, 41. ``It makes you think.″

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