The Northwest fleet that catches cod, rockfish and mackerel is an aging collection of vessels, several of which were first launched more than 60 years ago. But federal regulations effectively prevent owners of the so-called head-and-gut fleet from investing in a new generation of more seaworthy fishing boats.

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The Northwest fleet that catches cod, rockfish and mackerel is an aging collection of vessels, several of which were first launched more than 60 years ago.

The fleet’s 21st-century record includes four major accidents that have claimed 31 lives, with the first two of those prompting the Coast Guard to launch a new program to upgrade safety. As of June, owners had invested more than $40 million to replace hull steel, install watertight hatches and make other improvements to reduce the risk of disaster in more than 40 of these vessels.

The next big safety step would be for fleet operators to invest in a new generation of more-seaworthy boats. It might seem like a common-sense goal that could also give an economic boost to Northwest shipyards.

But there is a big obstacle. Federal regulations, spurred by congressional legislation, effectively prevent replacement of much of the head-and-gut fleet (so named because the heads and guts of the fish are removed at sea) as long as the boats remain afloat.

This provision to limit fleet investment was part of a broader settlement to end a bitter dispute over how to divide up a sizable chunk of the North Pacific trawl harvest and reduce discards of accidentally caught fish.

Many vessel operators are frustrated by this restriction, and want the right to replace their vessels before — rather than after — they sink in some high-seas disaster.

“There are people who would be building right now if they could,” said Lori Swanson, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, which represents 13 vessels in the head-and-gut fleet. “They already have plans drawn up with their naval architects.”

There are two ways to lift the restriction.

One option would be for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which helps set fishery policy off Alaska, to allow replacement of aging boats.

A second option — more likely to withstand legal challenge — would be for Congress to take action.

But in the tangled world of fishing-industry politics, few things are simple, and the vessel owners are divided on how to proceed.

Some operators who already have large vessels are balking at easing the restrictions in order to allow competitors to trade smaller boats for bigger boats. They fear that would lessen their competitive edge because federal regulations impose tough new standards that by 2011 will require that 85 percent of the catch that comes aboard the boat be processed and stowed in the holds.

Meanwhile, smaller operators say that it makes no sense to build new boats unless they can build bigger boats.

“The smaller boats just aren’t going to be real viable,” Swanson said. “The right thing to do is to allow them to be replaced in a way that maximizes the value of the fish and maximizes safety.”

For more than a year, the Groundfish Forum has lobbied U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs a key fishery-subcommittee position in the Senate, to craft a fix.

But given the disagreement within the industry, Cantwell has so far opted not to submit legislation, according to an aide. Instead, Cantwell hopes the council could address the issue.

It’s unclear when — or if — the council will lift the restrictions. An initial vote on the issue is scheduled for December.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or