Death on the High Seas

Issue: Commercial fishing vessel owners are seeking to eliminate the requirement for independent 3rd party review of the design, construction, and maintenance of fishing vessels by classification societies.


According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), commercial fishing has the highest rate of death of any industry in the United States.  For years the Coast Guard had requested authority to “inspect” fishing vessels the same as they inspect most other types of commercial vessels (see 46 U.S.C. 3301). To address design, construction and maintenance of commercial without a formal Coast Guard “inspection”, section 604 of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 required all commercial fishing vessels over 50 feet in length that travel beyond 3 miles from shore to be designed, constructed, and maintained to class standards.

Class societies were started to help insurers manage their risk – so the insurers would know the quality of the ship covered by their policy. No Protection and Indemnity (P&I) Club or insurance company should underwrite these multimillion dollar ships without managing their risk by requiring them to be designed, built, and maintained to class standard. According to DNV GL, the objective of their class society is the “safeguarding of life, property and the environment.”

The class society standards include the structural design of the vessel, engine standards, propulsion systems, steering and rudder systems, and piping systems for the bilge, fuel, and cold water cooling. The class societies also require that welders that build the vessel meet minimum qualification standards – so the vessel will not break apart while at sea.

Naval architects and engineers that design and oversee the construction of commercial fishing vessels are required to submit their plans for approval by a class society and the class society monitors the construction of the vessel as an independent 3rd party to ensure that the vessel was in fact built to class society standards. Congress believed that class society standards could be more flexible in addressing the different operating environments for fishing vessels than Coast Guard inspection standards have been historically– so that a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico would not have to meet the same standards as a fishing vessel in the Bering Sea.

Opposition to class society standards:

Opposition to the classing requirement has come from vessel owners that fish in Alaska.

Section 312 of the S. 1611, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015, as introduced, eliminates all requirements for the designed, construction, and maintenance of commercial fishing vessels that are less than 190 feet to be reviewed and approved an independent party with expertise in the field of fishing vessel construction – a class society.  Instead, S. 611 allows any registered professional hired by a vessel owner to design the fishing vessel as long as it is overseen by a marine surveyor hired by the vessel owner. This is the same type of construction process that has gone on in the United States for over 100 years – and has caused the deaths of thousands of fishermen.

Specific provisions in S. 1611

Let’s look at the specific language contained in S. 1611.

Section 312 states that the classing requirement does not apply if –

“(C) the vessel is designed by a registered professional engineer, and the design incorporates standards equivalent to those prescribed by a classification society approved under section 3316 of this title or another qualified organization approved by the Secretary; and

“(D) construction of such vessel is overseen and certified as being in accordance with its design by a marine surveyor of an organization approved by the Secretary.”

Who is a “registered professional engineer”? They are engineers that are certified by an organization such as the National Association of Professional Engineers. I recently hired a professional engineer to review and certify beam specifications that were to be installed during a remodel of my home. While that engineer may have been qualified to perform that task – he has never designed a vessel of any type and is not qualified to do so.  He has received no training in hull design, machinery, propulsion systems, stability, lifesaving equipment, or firefighting systems that are for a vessel. In fact, he was not qualified to design my house – for that I had to hire an architect. Being a registered professional engineer does not mean that the individual can design a vessel that will be safe at sea.

Similarly, the design plan for the remodeling of my house had to be reviewed by an independent 3rd party – in this case the county permitting office – who found several mistakes in the blueprints prepared by the architect.

Clause (C) also states that the design “incorporates standards equivalent to those prescribed by a classification society”. Who is to make that determination?  The engineer? The Secretary? Different class societies may have different standards – but when you examine the vessel as a whole – it provides a safe vessel.  What if the engineer takes a piping system that is approved by one class society and tries to hook it up to a fuel system approved by a different class society? It may not be safe.

One may say, “let’s require the vessel to be designed by a registered naval architect instead of a registered professional engineer.” The problem is that there is no organization that registers or certifies the training and qualifications of naval architects.  I can join a professional organization of naval architects – even if I’m not a naval architect.  For example, they may allow marine surveyors to join their organization.  There are no tests to determine the actual skills and knowledge of the individual to design a ship.  Naval architects can also make mistakes, as I previously mentioned regarding my house remodeling.  Even if the bill were to require the ship to be designed by a naval architect (if there were a system to determine the qualifications for such an architect) – it needs to be reviewed by an independent 3rd party.

It takes many skills to design a safe ship including naval architects, engineers of many types (such as structural and electrical engineers), and experts in lifesaving and fire protection. The fishing vessel owners are simply trying to save money by not having to hire a classification society – while providing the mirage of safety by having certified engineer design the ship – even if that individual isn’t qualified.

Clause (D) requires the construction of the vessel to be overseen by a marine surveyor and that the surveyor certify that the vessel is in accordance with the design. I’ve hired marine surveyors – such as when I bought my boat.  He did an excellent job at what he did – in reporting the condition of the boat.  That does not mean he is qualified to oversee the construction of a ship in a shipyard. The Coast Guard allows some marine surveyors to examine commercial fishing vessels to make sure that they have the required safety equipment on board – such as personal flotation devices (PFDs), Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), immersion suits, adequate survival craft, visual distress signals, and radio equipment. That does not mean they are qualified to examine the welds on a ship to ensure that the rudder doesn’t fall off.

The commercial fishing vessel owners that are attempting to eliminate the classing requirement are building multi-million dollar ships. For example, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010, in addition to requiring classing, removed the prohibition on vessel replacement under the American Fisheries Act.  This was done with the agreement that the new vessels would be built to class.  The amendment abrogates that agreement by allowing new vessels into this fishery that are not built to minimum safety standards established by an approved class society.  The owners of the vessels in this limited entry fishery will make millions of dollars while putting the lives of the fishing vessel crews and the men and women of the Coast Guard at risk.

What is particularly galling is that section 311 of S. 1611 will subsidize the construction of these unsafe vessels with Federal loans and loan guarantees. The Federal Government should ensure that the asset that they are going to provide a loan or loan guarantee is safe and doesn’t end up at the bottom of the ocean.

This provision will lead to the death of commercial fishermen.

The Senate provision –

  • Eliminates the requirement for 3rd party review and inspection of the design, construction and maintenance of commercial fishing vessels.
  • Eliminates the certification of welders as required by class societies.
  • Eliminates any uniformity of standards by allowing each professional engineer to establish their owner standards that they consider “equivalent” to class society standards. for their client – the shipowner.
  • Allows professional engineers and marine surveyors that do not have any training and expertise in the design, construction, and maintenance of commercial fishing vessels to undertake those responsibilities on behalf of the shipowner who is trying to cut costs.


Some owners of commercial fishing vessels believe that class societies charge too much – and that they can build safe vessels without having to pay for independent safety oversight. According to a recent article in the Seattle Times titled “Bills seek to modify fishing-vessel safety law”, DNV GH has estimated that the cost of classing a commercial fishing vessel will increase by $30-40,000 – a small price given the multi-million dollar cost of these ships. The history of the commercial fishing industry demonstrates that vessel owners are not ship designers and do not have the skills necessary to oversee the naval architects and engineers that are designing and building their vessels.

Illustrations of commercial fishing vessel disasters:

The history of commercial fishing vessel industry is filled with disasters and loss of life that prove them wrong. Many of these casualties have been caused by insufficient design, construction, repair, and maintenance.

Let’s look at some of the major commercial fishing vessel casualties and consider whether the Senate provision would address these casualties.

  • ARCTIC ROSE – sank on April 2, 2001 in the Bering Sea killing all 15 crewmembers. After deep sea excursion to the ARCTIC ROSE, the Coast Guard believed that this disaster was caused by a crewmember leaving a watertight door open and a flawed design that allowed water to pour in. Of course, why was the door left open in April in the Bering Sea? Inadequate ventilation may have made it too hot down below for the crewmembers to be comfortable. There was no 3rd party review of the design and construction to ensure that the design of the vessel was adequate, including a proper ventilation system.
  • AMERICUS – on February 14, 1983 the AMERICUS and ALTAIR were found floating with their hulls bottom up. The 14 crewmen died. The Coast Guard found that these disasters were probably caused by alterations to these vessels that increased their weight – without recalculating the impact of those alterations on the vessel’s stability. The “independent marine surveyor” had examined the vessels stability letters but did not “examine them to ensure they were up to date”. The testimony of that surveyor stated that the responsibility for the stability letters rested with the naval architect. No 3rd party reviews by a class society were done during of the extensive alteration made to the vessel.
  • MAJESTIC BLUE – sank on June 14, 2010 killing 2 crewmembers. The Coast Guard report stated “The proximate cause of this sinking was the rapid intrusion of sea water into the steering compartment through an unknown breach or breaches in the hull envelope of approximately 106 – 176 square inches. The recent shipyard repair work and hull survey was not under CG oversight therefore no documentary evidence is available regarding the outer structural integrity of the hull and or quality of repairs.” Similarly, that shipyard repair work was not done under the supervision of a class society. The Formal Investigation recommended that, “The Coast Guard should seek legislative authority and additional resources to support a mandatory annual inspection program for Commercial Fishing Vessels to include a dry-dock examination. The Commandant “concurred with the intent of this recommendation” stating “I agree that commercial fishing vessels should be subject to inspection. The Coast Guard has submitted legislative change proposals (LCPs) for such authority numerous times, however, the requests have not been accepted or approved in the legislative process.”
  • KATMAI – sank on October 21, 2008 killing 7 crewmembers. The Coast Guard investigation stated that “The most likely cause of the flooding was a catastrophic failure of the vessel’s hull or in sea water supply piping.” Once again, there was no 3rd party oversight of the design or maintenance and repair of the KATMAI by a 3rd party class society.
  • ALASKA RANGER – sank March 23, 2008 killing 5 crewmembers. The Coast Guard report indicates that it was probably caused by progressive flooding which started in the rudder room. Press reports indicated that the rudder may have fallen off the ship. Obviously, rudders should not leak or fall off a ship. No 3rd party oversight of the design or maintenance and repair of this vessel was conducted by a class society. The Formal Investigation recommend that, “The Commandant should review and revise the comprehensive commercial fishing vessel inspection plan proposed in 1992, and, again, request the additional legislative authority and resources necessary to implement an inspection program. This inspection program should include mandatory, regular inspections”. The Commandant ‘concurred with this recommendation.”

As described in the casualty report of the crab boats ALTAIR and AMERICUS the marine surveyor indicated that the naval architect was responsible for …. But the stability calculations were not done after the alterations were made to these 2 boats – and 16 lives were lost.

Commercial fishing vessels used to be inspected by the Coast Guard

Longtime fishing safety advocate Richard Hiscock has these thoughts and historical perspective on the proposals in House and Senate Coast Guard Authorization bills (H. 1987 and S. 1611) to make drastic changes to the requirement to build and maintain new fishing vessels to recognized standards.

“Any change in the current requirement that newly constructed fishing vessels over 50-feet overall in length be built and maintained to recognized standards would yet another in a long ‘tragedy of missed opportunities.’”

“Fishing vessels today are ‘uninspected’, but it wasn’t always that way.  In the days of steam propulsion fishing vessels were inspected, and required to have a full complement of licensed officers, including a radio operators (I know because my father was a radio operator on beam-trawlers out of Boston).

“In the 1930’s when fishing vessels transitioned to diesel propulsion Congress failed to keep pace with changing technology, and fishing (and towing) vessel became ‘uninspected.’”

Congressional Action:

On September 30, 2010 the Seattle Times ran an article titled “Bill OK’d to overhaul fishing-industry safety, protect Sound” in which Senator Cantwell states “It has been nearly four years in the making to get this important legislation through Congress,” (referring to the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010”). A subsequent Seattle Times opinion article published on October 4, 2010 titled “New Federal Rules Seek End to Deadliest Harvest” congratulated Senator Cantwell on her efforts to improve commercial fishing vessel safety. The article concluded:

“Cantwell stayed focus from start to finish, authoring sections of the bill and working to get the package passed into law. Lives will be saved because of her efforts.”

Senator Cantwell should ensure that this major commercial fishing vessel safety measure that required 3rd party oversight over the design, construction, and maintenance of fishing vessels is not eviscerated.

On March 22, 1990, the commercial fishing vessel ALEUTIAN ENTERPRISE capsized and sank on a calm day in the Bering Sea killing 9 crewmembers. However, in 1989 Congressman John Miller (R-WA) intervened with the Coast Guard asking them to delay requiring the vessel to have a loadline. Such an inspection would have required alterations to the vessel to address the watertight integrity of the vessel. The Coast Guard agreed to the delay the order so that it could be further reviewed.  During that review the disaster occurred. A November 1990 Associated Press article titled “Could boat tragedy been avoided?” quoted a father of one of the deceased crewman as saying “’Why in the hell Miller got involved in that is beyond me … I’d like his role explained.”

When these commercial fishing vessels disasters continue, I would like the role of the Senators who are pushing for this change to be explained.


Safety does cost money – and the history of the commercial fishing industry demonstrates that many owners do not have the expertise to oversee the design, construction, and maintenance of their fishing vessels and are not willing to spend the money it takes to have an independent 3rd party such as a class society perform this work.

The Senate should reject any proposal to change the requirement that commercial fishing vessels over 50 feet be designed, constructed, and maintained to class society standards that are overseen by the class society.  This independent 3rd party review is vital to improving the safety on commercial fishing vessels in the United States.

Insurers should also require, as a condition of their policy, that commercial fishing vessels over 50 feet in length be built and maintained to class standards to better manage their risk.

Below is a list of commercial fishing vessels that have been built to class since 2012:

U.S.-flag fishing vessels built to class

Shipyard FV owner Name/# FV Type of FV Length Classed by Year built
Eastern Shipbuilding (FL) O’Hara Corp. ARAHO (#175) trawler 194’ DNV GL 2015
Kvichak Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation Paul C. Johnson Salmon/crab 67’4” RINA 2014
Dakota Creek Shipbuilding Blue North Blue North Cod longliner 191.5’ 2014
Dakota Creek Shipbuilding Fishermen’s Finest Fishermen’s Finest Catcher/processor groundfish 261’ DNV GL 2017
Vigor Alaska Alaska Longline Co. Arctic Prowler Catcher/processor longline 136’ DNV GL 2013


  • Reblogged this on Brittius.


  • The professional surveyors in SAMS and NAMS are aware that there will undoubtedly be additional education and associated certifications required for surveyors who wish to qualify for the new build inspection program. The author of the article does not appear to be aware of this.

    Further, he refers to the modest cost for building vessels to class when compared to their overall construction cost. He then cites several vessels over 130′ in length as examples of recent builds that were constructed to class.

    Imagine the impact of adding $30-40,000.00 to the cost of classing a new 51′ vessel, which would likely come in at under $1 million.

    Jim Steffen


    • Jim —

      Thanks for your comment. I have a couple of thoughts.
      First, I don’t think Congress should act based upon what an association may or may not do at some point in the future. What the scope of their additional training is not known – and the Senate provision doesn’t specify what it should be.

      Regarding the cost of classing a fishing vessel – in the table you will see a 67′ fish tender vessel classed by RINA. The cost of classing smaller vessels will certainly be under $30-40,000 – particularly if they are built in a series.

      I believe that owners are attempting to change the law out of fear of speculative costs without actually working with the class societies that have been classing these vessels (DNV GH and RINA) to determine what the actual costs are for their project.

      Even if SAMS and NAMS adopt additional educational requirements for their certification – that doesn’t eliminate the need for independent 3rd party certification.



      • John, thanks for your thoughts. The training I spoke of is to train surveyors as 3rd party examiners, similar to the current f/v safety 3rd party program. This has at times been a topic of conversation, with DNV promising to collaborate on a training program.

        The goal would be to provide the necessary oversight on a local basis, and avoid putting the small boat fleet out of business. Most of these new builds are not made in production runs, they are nearly all one- offs.


  • Jim — I agree – we certainly don’t want to put the small boat fleet out of business with unnecessary costs – but we want safe boats built. The basic issue is the “standard” to which the boat will be built and maintained. Some class societies don’t really have a prescribed standard for small boats – but they sit down and talk with the owner about the vessel, where it will operate, what type of fishery, etc. – and then they reach an agreement with the vessel owner on the standard to which it will be built. So I’m not sure how a PE (assuming the engineer’s expertise is ship design and construction) can have an “equivalent” standard as specified in the Senate bill. The Coast Guard currently allows vessel owners to use equivalencies to meet Coast Guard standards using class society standards – but the Coast Guard gets to determine whether or not it is equivalent. Who get to decide it in the Senate bill? The Coast Guard?

    If a class society wants to use an independent surveyor to conduct the oversight – that would meet the legal requirements today – and may help cut costs for the vessel owner.

    Thanks for joining in the discussion.



  • Professional engineers (PEs) are licensed by the states, and there most certainly is a specific PE license for naval architecture and marine engineering (NA/ME; it is a long name to cover all aspects of boat design). The National Council for Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) made the NA/ME PE a standardized national exam in 2001; it is administered every April across the country. Prior to that, Washington State administered and awarded professional engineering licenses for NA/ME. You can search for licensed NA/ME PEs through the website of each state’s department of licensing. It is legal for a NA/ME PE from one state to design a boat that is built or used in another state.

    While it is true that anybody can join the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME), SNAME has nothing to do with certification or licensure. SNAME is a nonprofit organization where engineers share ideas, discuss detailed technical topics, network with other engineers, and develop ways to advance the state of the industry.

    The amendment to the Authorization Act was implicitly written, and it will be interpreted by the Coast Guard, such that designs must be certified by NA/ME PEs. Engineering ethics forbids engineers from practicing outside their areas of competency/licensure. Engineers who break this code risk criminal and civil prosecution as well as revocation of their PE licenses. There is neither a need nor a motivation for engineers licensed in disciplines other than NA/ME to begin offering vessel design services.

    If we strip down the Authorization Act to one simple idea, it says that owners are responsible for the conditions of their vessels. Owners are going to have to invest a little time in learning their obligations under the new regulations and shopping around for an engineer and a builder who understand their needs and can do a job that meets their standards. This process is no different than becoming educated prior to making any major investment.

    As much as engineers take pains to minimize errors through internal checking policies, they are still fallible humans. Mr. Cullather’s argument for independent design review is well received. In the absence of review by a classification society, an alternative solution could be to hire a second engineer for an independent check, as is routinely done for larger vessels. The cost might be similar to classification fees, and there would be greater assurance that the design’s approach and implementation were sound.

    The only classification society that has prepared rules for small fishing vessels (at least 50 feet in overall length) is Det Norske Veritas-Germanischer Lloyd (DNV-GL), so this rule set will probably become the de facto design reference for applicable vessels even if it is not required de jure. The DNV-GL rules are based largely on existing international standards, namely the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Voluntary Guidelines for the Design, Construction, and Equipment of Small Fishing Vessels, which in turn is based on other well-known publications and proposed and accepted standards. NAs/MEs will refer to the most appropriate established guidelines such as these when making design decisions, lest they expose their clients and themselves to unnecessary risk. Likewise, they will know to focus on the most common causes of fishing casualties: watertightness, weathertightness, stability, fire protection, and strength.

    The Authorization Act also included a provision for fishing vessels less than 50 feet in length. All new construction starting 2010 must be built to a recognized safety standard for recreational vessels. Again, there are de facto guidelines such as those from the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Presently no professional engineer’s certification is required for these smaller vessels, but a safety-conscious owner or builder could still enlist the assistance of a licensed NA/ME.

    Allowing PEs to certify designs independently may indeed allow more variety in vessel design. The upside of this variety is that designers will have more flexibility to serve the extremely wide range of vessel types, missions, and gear that is being addressed with one blanket regulation. Where the DNV-GL rules flatly require a fire hydrant in the tiny engineroom of a 52-foot fiberglass shallow-draft seiner (VI/1.2.2(b)), a professional engineer might recognize that a fixed-gas extinguishing system, which the rules do not require for that vessel, would be safer and more effective. In situations like these, the spirit of the law might be better served and the client’s money might be better spent. This kind of substitution is different from Mr. Cullather’s hypothetical example of using different rules for different parts of a fuel system, which is not standard practice. Everybody stands to lose when established safety standards are flouted. PEs are not going to cut corners simply because a third party is not reviewing their designs.

    The motivation for this legislative pullback was most likely the realization that there were too many boats and too few people authorized to carry out the review and inspection. Months- or years-long waiting lists would have forced owners to choose between operating out of compliance or not operating at all. We should pause for a moment to remember that the design, construction, and modification of small fishing vessels was completely unregulated in the U.S. prior to 2010. In an ideal world, standardized third-party review would probably be the best solution. As we work toward this goal, competent engineers and surveyors will help ease the transition. Even in its “watered-down” form, the Authorization Act represents a huge step forward for the safety of this country’s independent seafood harvesters.

    Brent Morrison
    NA/ME PE in training
    Seattle, WA


    • Brent –
      Thank you for your detailed explanation of the PE license for naval architecture and marine engineering issued by the National Council for Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). These individuals may have the skills necessary to design a safe fishing vessel. However, as my previous posting pointed out – the proposal in the Senate bill does not require these individuals to design the fishing vessel. Section 312 of S. 1611 states “the vessel is designed by a registered professional engineer”. This language would allow any professional engineer, including the one that stamped the design plans for my house remodel, to design the fishing vessel. The Coast Guard can only rely on the standard (provision) provided in the law – which, as proposed, does not require the individual to be a PE with a license in naval architecture and marine engineering. Just as importantly, there is no role for the Coast Guard in the approval process of the PE or the organization that has issued the PE license.

      In contrast, the existing law requires the Coast Guard to approve the class society – which then allows the Coast Guard to examine their design and construction standards and the qualifications that the class society uses for the individuals that approve vessel designs and surveyors. Let’s assume that NCEES has rigorous standards for issuing their licenses, there is nothing to stop a new organization from being started that will “register” professional engineers that has weaker standards – and the Coast Guard will not have the legal authority to stop those individuals from designing fishing vessels in accordance with the Senate proposal. For example, there are many classification societies – but only a few have been approved by the Coast Guard to perform work in the United States because the other class societies do not have and enforce adequate safety standards.

      Regarding the classification societies – DNV GL is not the only class society currently approving the design and construction of U.S.-flag commercial fishing vessels. The chart on my previous posting lists RINA (the Italian class society) as having classed a 67 foot fish tender vessel. Their office in Seattle is planning on classing many more commercial fishing vessels under 79 feet by the end of this year.

      I firmly believe that independent 3rd party review of fishing vessels design, construction and maintenance is vital to the improvement of commercial fishing vessel safety. However, I am unaware of any organizations, other than class societies, that perform these function.

      I totally agree that “that owners are responsible for the conditions of their vessels. Owners are going to have to invest a little time in learning their obligations under the new regulations and shopping around for an engineer and a builder who understand their needs and can do a job that meets their standards.” But, the expertise of fishing vessel owners is fishing – not vessel design. I talked to numerous architects and contractors before beginning my house remodel. Their portfolio looked great. Their references were impeccable. But mistakes were still made that were only caught by the independent county engineer/ architect that was responsible for reviewing and approving the plans. Fishermen will die if the independent review process is eliminated in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015.




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