Congress has approved a Coast Guard authorization bill that includes a major overhaul of federal fishing-industry safety laws, and measures to strengthen efforts to prevent Puget Sound oil spills. The bill was expected to soon be approved by the House of Representatives and sent to President Obama for signing.

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Congress has passed a Coast Guard authorization bill that includes a major overhaul of federal fishing-industry safety laws and measures to strengthen efforts to prevent Puget Sound oil spills

“It has been nearly four years in the making to get this important legislation through Congress,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wa., who chaired a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the legislation.

The bill, approved by the Senate on Wednesday and the House early Thursday, is expected to be signed by President Obama in the weeks ahead.

Commercial fishing is ranked as the nation’s most dangerous occupation, and Cantwell said Wednesday that she fought to have the new regulations — initially crafted in the House of Representatives — included in the final legislation.

The bill will require large fishing vessels built after 2012 to be approved as seaworthy by an independent classification society. Smaller fishing vessels will also have to meet new safety standards.

Vessels of more than 50 feet built before 2012 will have to comply with alternative safety standards that will be phased in through 2020.

The bill also will require training programs for fishing- vessel operators, and give the Coast Guard the authority to require that vessels undergo dockside safety examinations.

“This is really big, and increases the focus on prevention (of accidents),’ said Jerry Dzugan, of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. “It’s more effective to catch the boat at the dock than to have to send a helicopter out in the middle of a storm to pluck people out of the water.”

The oil-spill provisions will include measures to expand oil-spill-response capabilities around the entrance of Strait of Juan de Fuca and increase the role of Indian tribes in the response effort. The legislation will result in oil-spill- response equipment, including booms and barriers, positioned along the strait.

Approximately 600 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges travel each year through Puget Sound and carry about 15 billion gallons of oil to Washington refineries, according to Cantwell

The bill also includes measures intended to improve the Coast Guard’s process for acquiring new vessels. A Senate investigation into that process uncovered cost overruns, cracks in the hulls of newly refurbished vessels and other problems, according to Cantwell.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com