Last Aug. 3—the day he turned 20 years old—Peter Barry, a junior at Yale University, called home collect from Kodiak, Alaska to tell his parents that he had landed a summer job as a commercial fisherman. “It’s hard work, but I don’t mind that,” he told his mother. “And because I’m the least experienced, everyone is telling me what to do. But I don’t mind that, either. I expect it.”
That was the last time Peter’s parents heard from their son. The next phone call they received from Alaska came on the night of Aug. 20. A body had been found in the cold waters off Kodiak Island. A letter in the pockets of the water-soaked blue jeans bore Peter Barry’s name, and the Coast Guard assumed the dead young man to be the Barrys’ son. Although no wreckage had been sighted, the Coast Guard also assumed that Peter’s boat, Western Sea, had sunk, drowning its skipper and four other crew along with Peter.
That all-too-common tragedy has prompted Peter’s parents, Robert Barry, 51, and his wife, Peggy, 50, to launch a crusade for federal safety standards in the offshore fishing industry. “Our goal is to get legislation this year for minimum safety standards,” says Barry, a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria who currently heads the U.S. delegation to the East-West negotiations on security in Europe.
His crusade began shortly after he flew to Kodiak to identify his son’s body and determine the circumstances of the young man’s death. He talked to a Coast Guard officer and found that Western Sea was a leaky, unstable, 70-year-old boat with no life rafts, no survival kits, no emergency beacon and no insurance. And yet the boat was perfectly legal. “The officer told me that no regulations or laws were violated,” says Barry. “The more heard, the angrier I got.”
What horrifed the Barrys most of all was the fact that the deaths of their son, and of skipper Gerald Bouchard, 58, and hands Christopher Hofer, 27, Stuart Darling, 25, Chris McLain, 24, and Bill Posey, 24, were nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, fatal sinkings are routine occurrences in the perilous seas off Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Since 1981 an average of 72 commercial boats have sunk there each year, and the sea has swallowed up a total of 108 fishermen. Nationwide the numbers are even higher, with 250 fishing boats sinking—and an average of 86 lives lost—each year. These grim statistics make commercial fishing the nation’s most dangerous business, with a death rate seven times higher than the national average for occupations and two times higher than mining, the next most hazardous job.
Those facts moved Robert Barry to act. On the day after the memorial service for Peter, he sat down and wrote an article highlighting the dangerous lack of safety regulations in the fishing industry. Published by several small newspapers in coastal towns, the article was later distributed by the Associated Press. Barry hoped that it would serve as a warning to the estimated 20,000 people—many of them college students—who flock to Alaska each summer to find adventure and big paychecks in the fishing industry. “My first aim is to bring the dangers of the problem to everybody’s mind,” Barry says, “especially the kids who go up there to fish.”
But Barry did not stop there. He and his wife have been lobbying Congress for legislation mandating minimum safety standards in the fishing industry. “There should be compulsory legislation for emergency beacons, survival suits and life rafts,” says Barry. “And the Coast Guard should have seaworthiness inspections for older vessels.”
Meanwhile the families of three of the other drowned crew members have filed suit against the estate of Bouchard, who owned the boat, claiming “wrongful death due to the negligence of the captain.” Lisa McLain, the widow of one crewman, points out that she was pregnant when her husband died. “For a while I had to rely on the state [for welfare],” she says. “It has not been fun.”
Several of the parents of Western Sea victims have joined the Barrys’ crusade. Among them is Mrs. Rosemary Hofer of Brielle, N.J., mother of Christopher Hofer. “I had no idea of the danger until this happened,” she says. “Something has got to prevent these boys who have a sense of adventure from going out there.” And soon something might do just that: In the past month, three bills dealing with the problem have been introduced in the House of Representatives. Hearings are scheduled next week, and Peggy Barry is expected to testify. “In one way doing something like this helps,” she says. “It makes you feel like you are doing something that is connected to Peter, something that can help other kids.” Then she pauses. “But the grief is so visceral. I know it will never go away.”