Fishermen, charter boat owners and others making a living in Keys waters are holding their collective breath while figuring out how to meet new federal safety requirements mandated for vessels that operate more than three miles beyond shore.
The Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2010 requires -- among other things -- that the compact life buoys and net-bottomed floats used for emergencies by passengers be replaced by inflatable rafts or other approved inflatable equipment.
While the law does not take effect until 2015, companies, individual boat owners and safety officials are already gearing up.
Lt. Rafael Arizmendi of Coast Guard Sector Miami already has met with commercial fishermen on Stock Island to inform them of the new law and explain how it affects them. A more immediate change, he said, is the requirement that all commercial vessels venturing beyond three miles display a sticker verifying that they have undergone a Coast Guard safety check.
"The life raft requirement will be effective Oct. 1, 2015, so for now anybody who uses a life float can go up to 20 miles out, but change is coming," Arizmendi said. "When the new law takes effect you must have life-saving equipment that will keep a person 100 percent dry."
The intent of the raft law, according to congressional documents, is to ensure that passengers needing to use a raft in an emergency are kept dry to prevent hypothermia, or loss of body heat.
Local boat operators say there is not much of a potential for trouble with that here in the Keys, especially since help is often close by if an emergency occurs.
But some data suggests hypothermia can be a problem even here.
The U.S. Navy Diving Manual says a water temperature of 91 degrees Fahrenheit is required to "keep an unprotected, resting man at stable temperature. ... The unprotected diver will be affected by excessive heat loss and become chilled within a short period of time in water temperatures below 72 F."
Scott Saunders, president of Fury Water Adventures Inc., said the change will cost thousands of dollars for each of his company's vessels, which include catamarans and glass-bottomed boats.
"The regulatory environment right now across the board has become a lot to deal with," Saunders said, noting that his company and others had to have their boats re-certified last year due to new regulations that otherwise would cut down on the number of people permitted to travel on an excursion boat. The change was due to the increased weight of the American public. "We feel the regulatory environment is very strict right now, maybe rightfully so. And for us it's safety first and everything else second."
Commercial fisherman Lee Starling, who travels routinely beyond three miles in his small boat, questions how he will carry the equipment, especially considering other changes that have added gear.
"I am not sure what type of life raft they want us to get," Starling said. "I have got so many different agencies saying I have to carry certain types of equipment, I am running out of room to carry fish. ... I just spent $800 on a raft which is perfectly serviceable, Coast Guard recommended, a newer raft with a Duracoat lining, but every couple of years they change everything and you have to buy something new."
Leslie Levis, manager of the Ann Street dive shop Captain's Corner, said the new law will cause added expense for her company's vessel, the Sea Eagle.
"It will be expensive," Levis said. "The others you have to replace every couple of years anyway, every two years it has to be approved and you have a safety inspection every year. Ours cost about $1,200 each depending on the sizes. I am guessing the new one will cost more than $3,000. It will be a financial hardship."
Knowing the law doesn't take effect until 2015, Levis said, was some comfort.
"That will give me a couple of years," she said. "Maybe the economy will turn around by then."