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Passengers disembark from the Washington state ferry Puyallup on its arrival on Bainbridge Island, Wash., Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011.Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

First it was airlines that made overweight customers pay for two seats, and now the obesity wave has shifted to sea.

The tipping point?

The estimated average weight of U.S. adults has ballooned from 160 pounds two decades ago to 185 pounds in 2010, forcing America's largest ferry operator to allow fewer travellers on board so that vessels can maintain stability.

Washington State Ferries now follows the revised weight standards and stability regulations laid out by the U.S. Coast Guard on Dec. 1.

While keeping ships steady is crucial to safety, Washington State Ferries director of communications wrote in an e-mail that stability has never been a problem for the government-run ferry system, the fourth largest in the world, which carried 22.4 million riders in 2010 on 10 routes through Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and to Sidney, B.C.

"Our ships have significant reserve stability and in the history of Washington State Ferries we have never approached the U.S. Coast Guard-certified capacity," Marta Coursey wrote. "We may have instances where a majority of passengers may go to one side of a ferry, such as when a pod of whales is sighted, or when passengers have been asked to assist in looking for a potential passenger overboard. At no time have there ever been stability issues with our ferries."

Since 2007, B.C. Ferries, Canada's largest ferry system, has used an average passenger weight of 75 kilograms, or about 165 pounds, based on Transport Canada guidelines, according to Transport Canada spokesperson Sara Johnston.

When Transport Canada raised its weight limits, it noted that passenger weight had been identified as a contributing factor in marine accidents in the U.S. and Britain.

So far, it's been rare for a Washington state ferry to reach maximum passenger loads, Ms. Coursey noted. Passenger and vehicle counts are tabulated by the system's ticketing system.

The decrease in the number of passengers allowed on board affects five of Washington state's 23 vessels. Other vessels are certified under maritime safety regulations such as Safety of Life at Sea.

The capacities of the Yakima, Hyak and Kaleetan would drop from 2,000 passengers to 1,782 passengers each. The Evergreen State would fall from 984 to 882, and the Tillikum from 1,192 to 1,061.

While fast food and alcohol are available on the vessels, there are no plans to deep-six the junk fare. "It is each customer's choice what they decide to consume," Ms. Coursey wrote.

A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2010, 34 per cent of U.S. adults and 17 per cent of those aged two to 19 were obese. The CDC determines obesity by using weight and height to calculate body mass index, or BMI, which is used because it usually correlates with the amount of body fat.

According to the CDC, the states with the fattest passengers are in the U.S. South.

Obesity rates in states whose passengers are more likely to ride Washington state's ships are actually leaner. In Washington, obesity rates are 26 per cent, in Oregon and Idaho they're at 27 per cent, while 24 per cent of Californians are obese.

In Canada, meanwhile, 24 per cent were obese in 2009, according to Statistics Canada. And according to B.C. Stats 2006 figures, 19 per cent of British Columbians were obese, the lowest rate in Canada.