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Erie, Pa. - Anglers and hunters are going to have something in common soon.

Starting next fall, they'll both be required to wear life jackets while on the water at certain times of the year.

Acting at their September meeting, Pennsylvania Fish & Boat commissioners gave final approval to a regulation change that makes it mandatory for people to wear life jackets in all canoes and kayaks and boats 16 feet and shorter, while underway or at anchor, from Nov. 1 to midnight April 30.

The regulation was approved and will go into effect on Nov. 1, 2012.

At least twice before, commissioners considered a similar regulation. Both times it failed to get the necessary votes for approval.

Ironically, in the last instance, a duck hunter fell out of his boat and died from cold water shock less than a month later, said Commissioner Tom Shetterly, of Washington County.

The regulation change was adopted unanimously this time around, but not without some questions and debate.

Laurel Anders, director of the commission's bureau of boating, said records collected over the last 15 years show that while 92 percent of boating accidents occur in summer, the cold-weather months account for 24 percent of fatalities.

"What that means is if there is an accident in the cold-weather months, it's much more likely to be a fatality," Anders said.

The new regulation won't change that completely, said Andy Talento of the Pittsburgh Safe Boating Council and the commission's boating advisory board, which recommended it. But it will save lives, he said.

"I see the results of what this regulation addresses quite frequently. We've needed this for years," Talento said.

Not everyone agreed. The commission received 41 public comments on the proposal. Some, from groups like the U.S. Coast Guard and National Safe Boating Council, favored it. Scott Grahn of the McKeesport River Rescue Team traveled to Erie to express support for it, too.

"This is a big step. But it's a step that will keep people alive in the commonwealth. And that's what the Fish & Boat Commission is about," Grahn said. "It's not just about fishing."

They were in the minority, though. Most of the comments received opposed the regulation, Anders admitted. Some of those people were waterfowlers who said they didn't want to have to wear a life jacket while hunting.

Most, though, were from people simply opposed to the idea of government telling them what to do, Anders said.

Ed Garr, a towboat captain and member of the U.S. Power Squadron in Erie, echoed that when he testified before commissioners.

He believes boaters should wear life jackets in adverse conditions, regardless of the time of year, he said. But the commission shouldn't tell them what to do, he said.

"Where do you draw the line? Should they have to wear a wet suit? Should they have to wear an immersion suit?" Garr asked.

Commissioners had a few questions, too. Warren Elliott, of Adams County, wanted to know why the regulation addresses boats at anchor.

The reason is that boats are actually more stable while under way, Anders said. Boats at anchor are sometimes anchored improperly, she added, full of fishermen reaching over the sides to net fish or of waterfowlers with dogs climbing in and out of the boat.

"It's important to wear a life jacket because of the risk of falling into cold water, no matter what activity you're involved in," Anders said.

Commissioner Steve Ketterer, of Dauphin County, chief of Harrisburg River Rescue for 25 years, said he was "very much" in favor of the regulation.

"As a rescuer, I've had to come back time and time again, with a body we found later, and had to say to a family, ‘You know, if only they'd had a life jacket on,'" he said.

That was enough to sway the board.

"I'm not really for a lot of government regulations, but I think we should pass it," said Commissioner Bill Sabatose of Elk County.

Elliott agreed, noting that while "it's a shame we have to legislate common sense," the commission almost had no choice.

"This could be perceived as an overreach. But I think it's a necessary overreach," he said.

The new regulation means the commission has some work to do, said Commissioner Ed Mascharka, of Erie County.

It managed to get a little bit of space in the Pennsylvania Game Commission's hunting digest this year touting life jacket wear; next year it will need to convince its sister agency to find a little more space to tell waterfowlers that they must wear their life jackets while hunting, he said.

The commission will also need to adapt its own digest to make sure anglers know the regulation will impact the beginning weeks of trout season, he said.

"We'll have to bring that into our bulletin now," Mascharka said.

Ketterer said the effort will be worthwhile, and predicted that the furor over the new rule will die down.
 
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