Category Archives: Blog

More fishermen to be buried at sea

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation today voted to send to the full Senate a bill that will result in the deaths of more fishermen on vessels that capsize and sink at sea.

Section 312 of S. 1611, Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015, as ordered reported from the  Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, amends  the requirement Congress enacted in 2010 that requires commercial fishing vessels built after 1 July 2013 that are over 50-feet and operate more than 3-miles from the coast to be designed, built and maintained to the standards of a recognized organization – called a class society. The amendment proposed in S. 1611 would eliminate that requirement for fishing vessels over 50-feet but less than 190-feet.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), commercial fishing has the highest rate of deaths of any industry in the United States. The 2010 safety requirements were designed to change that historical record.

This provision is immoral.  A Committee in Congress has never voted in the past 30 years to decrease safety standards for the commercial fishing industry. Clearly the voice of vessel owners was heard today – but what of the voice of the workers on these vessels. Apparently the deaths of fishermen killed in disasters such as the ARCTIC ROSE, KATMAI, ALASKA RANGER and MAJESTIC BLUE are not enough to convince Senators that the old way of building vessels without 3rd party oversight is not enough.

This is a serious issue that should be beyond politics and lobbiest. This is not an amendment to make more fishing vessels eligible for Federal loans and loan guarantees like they have also done in this bill.  This provision will decide whether fishermen come home to their families or whether they will be lost at sea as so many have been in the past.

The Senators that voted on this bill are aware of the dismal safety history of the fishing industry. This legislation will allow fishing vessels to be designed, and the construction overseen, by people who are not qualified – the same has been done for the past 85 years. Fishermen will die to save the vessel owners money by eliminating any effective oversight by an independent party of the design, construction and maintenance of fishing vessels.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) voiced her concern about the fishing vessel safety provisions contained in S. 1611.  She stated that 68% of the deaths on the West Coast were from major fishing vessel casualties and that between 2000 and 2009 there were 32 fishing vessel disasters resulting in 58 deaths including 24 deaths in the Bering Sea. She stated that “I want to make sure that we get vessel safety correct”. The provisions in S. 1611 are far from being correct.

The Pacific Northwest and Alaska are not the only regions to have fishing vessel disasters.  In the Gulf of Mexico there were 27 fishing vessel disasters between 2000 and 2009 resulting in the deaths of 39 fishermen and on the East Coast there were 59 fishing vessel disasters resulting in 98 deaths.

For more detailed information on this provision read by article titled “Death on the High Seas”.

Marine Casualty Investigations – Information and analysis, not data, is needed

My friend Dennis Bryant (USCG-Ret) published an article on titled “Marine Casualty Reporting: Addressing the Coast Guard’s Processes” in which he discusses the current broken state of the Coast Guard’s marine casualty reporting and investigation system. I agree with Dennis that the system is broken – and has been for years.

In his article Dennis states:

“The Coast Guard is drowning in marine casualty reports.  The majority of its informal investigations are never closed.  Those that are closed are seldom read again.  Lessons that might have been learned from marine casualties are rarely shared with the maritime industry. It is time to go back to basics.”

Therefore, Dennis recommends that the types of accidents and injuries reported to the Coast Guard be scaled back and that sector commanders be given broad latitude to decide which casualties should be investigated.

Dennis also states that “In my opinion, there are far too many informal investigations and they generally provide no lessons learned.” If an investigation provides no less learned – then perhaps it is the fault of the investigator, the investigator’s training, and the quality of the report that has been prepared. The major purpose of these types of investigations is not to suspend or revoke the license of a mariner who may have made a mistake – but to learn from the casualty so that future accidents can be prevented and to help ensure that Coast Guard regulations are adequately addressing the root causes of a casualty.

Perhaps the Coast Guard should gather more information about a casualty – not just “data” about time, place, and who was involved. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has delved into the Coast Guard’s casualty reports and prepared an excellent analysis of casualties and injuries on commercial fishing vessels.  This information is then made publicly available at their site (see link). The Coast Guard has also used this information to help identify problems in the fishing vessel industry.  However, I understand that the data in the casualty reports were not particularly helpful in identifying the types of problems that should be addressed for towing vessels under the new Subchapter M regulations.

Congress agreed with Dennis that marine casualty reports should be made available to the public. Section 442 of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 amended section 6101(i) of title 46, United States Code States to require that:

 “(i) The Secretary shall, as soon as possible, and no later than January 1, 2005, publish all marine casualty reports prepared in accordance with this section in an electronic form.”

As Dennis points out, there were problems with privacy sensitive information being contained in certain data fields that should not be released (names, phone numbers, social security numbers, etc).  This made automation of the publishing of these reports a challenge. The Coast Guard scrubbed that information to ensure no privacy information was released and now makes all marine casualty reports available on line at: Incident Investigation Reports. The public and insurers can search this database based on the vessel’s name, owner, or other key words. It will also help the public see the quality of the investigation.

There are problems with the Coast Guard’s marine casualty reporting and investigation system – but the solution is not to give sector commanders broad discretion to decide what should and should not be investigated.  That lack of national uniformity will make the consistent gathering of casualty information impossible and of little value to those trying to use the information for regulatory purposes. A sector commander may not have any background in maritime safety and decide to allocate the limited sector resources to other purposes.

Much of the reporting that Dennis is concerned about is comparable to occupational safety reports other industries must submit regarding workplace injuries to agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  However, OSHA does not generally have jurisdiction on Coast Guard inspected vessels – so this type of information is collected by the agency with jurisdiction – the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard is drowning due to all types of resource constraints and it is affecting many programs – not just casualty investigations. If the Coast Guard does not have the resources necessary to collect the information necessary to prevent future casualties – the solution isn’t to stop gathering the information.  Perhaps the solution is to give this responsibility to a different federal agency that can perform this responsibility.

Time to change maritime safety behavior in the commercial fishing industry

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada published a blog post by Glenn Budden, a Senior Investigator for their agency titled “Time to change maritime safety behavor” in the commercial fishing industry.  His insights are particularly informative because Mr. Budden owned and operated a commercial fishing business.

Falling overboard is the second leading cause of deaths on commercial fishing vessels in Canada. In British Columbia, 40% of the individuals that died on a commercial fishing vessel since 2004 were not wearing a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) despite the fact that PFDs are legally required for individuals “employed under conditions which involve a risk of drowning.”

Mr. Budden uses the loss of life on the fishing vessel DIANE LOUISE to illustrate his point.  The report on the DIANE LOUISE is at this link.

The key point that he makes is that commercial fishermen are keenly aware that they are engaged in a risky business – and they accept that risk – but in the case of the DIANE LOUISE they did not manage it.

Wearing a PFD on a commercial fishing vessel should become the normal practice.  Just as I do not feel comfortable driving my car without my seat belt on – so to must crewmembers become uncomfortable going on deck without their PFD.

However, Mr. Budden correctly states that “Any efforts to improve safety and eliminate unsafe behaviours in commercial fishing have to be made in consideration of the difficult operating environment and must be tailored to work within that context”. In the United States that may mean that the type of a PFD that works for a fisherman in Alaska may not work for a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico because it is just too hot.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has worked for several years to identify PFDs that fishermen will be comfortable using in various marine environments and some manufacturers have begun adapting their products for those regional conditions.  I will write a blog on that topic in the near future.

In the meantime, Mr. Budden’s entire blog titled “Time to change maritime safety behavor” can be found at this link.

Plan now for the Alternate Compliance Program for fishing vessels more than 25 years old

There may be some confusion about what commercial fishing vessels are subject to an Alternate Compliance Program (ACP) and what types of safety measures may be addressed by the ACP. I will try to straighten out the record.


Section 604 of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010, as subsequently amended, requires all commercial fishing vessels that operate more than 3 nautical miles offshore, are more than 50 feet overall in length, and built after June 30, 2013, to be designed and built under standards developed by a classification society approved by the Coast Guard.

But what about vessels built before July 1, 2013?  Shouldn’t there be design and construction standards for those vessels to help prevent capsizings and sinkings?

The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 also addressed those vessels – by requiring the Coast Guard to develop an “Alternate Compliance Program”.  It was recognized that the classification societies would not class a vessel in cases where they had not approved the design and had oversight during the construction. The ACP was developed to address that problem by having the Coast Guard establish the standards instead of the class societies. Beginning on January 1, 2020 commercial fishing vessels that are 25-years-old, operate more than 3 nautical miles offshore, are more than 50-feet overall in length, that were built after June 30, 2013 must comply with the ACP.  Scope of ACP:

The scope of the ACP standards is to include all matters that would be covered by classing the vessel – it is an “alternative” to classing.  It includes all matters related to the construction of the vessel – such as hull, machinery, fittings, firefighting equipment, auxiliary machinery, electric installations, stability, water-tight integrity, and crew accommodations. It does not cover PFDs, EPIRBs, radios, and other equipment and training that are otherwise addressed by the law.

Pre-2013 vessels:

Congress also recognized that many existing vessels may have trouble complying with the ACP standards – and that compliance with those standards may result in vessels being tied to the dock because they could not comply.

That is why Congress only applied the ACP to commercial fishing vessels that are more than 25 years old. By that time, the owners should have fully paid off their vessels – and could build a new vessel that would be classed by an approved classification society or they can choose to enroll their vessel in an ACP and comply with its provision that may require extensive upgrades.

Congress specifically required that the Coast Guard develop the ACP standards in cooperation with the fishing industry.  Congress also recognized that the standards that may be appropriate for a vessel in the Bering Sea may not be appropriate for a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico.   Therefore, Congress authorized the Coast Guard to establish ACP standards based upon geographic regions or fisheries.

This is not unlike what Congress passed when enacting the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA). At that time, Congress allowed single-hull tankers to continue until they reached their 25th birthday.  After that time – they had to either be retrofitted to comply with the double hull requirements – or be removed from the trade.


Beginning in 2020, the Alternate Compliance Program for commercial fishing vessels applies to a vessel that is 25-years old, operates more than 3 nautical miles offshore, is more than 50-feet in length, and was built before July 1, 2013. .  It is to address all those matters that would be addressed by a class society when they review the design and construction of a new commercial fishing vessel.

The Coast Guard is required by law to prescribe the ACP regulations by January 1, 2017 so that fishing vessel owners will have 3 years to plan and make any modifications necessary to their vessel to comply with the requirements.

2020 may sound like it is a long way off – but it is not. It is very important that the fishing industry, from all areas of the United States and participating in the various fisheries, advise the Coast Guard now on what construction standards they think would be appropriate to make this industry safer.


Will your commercial fishing vessel be tied to the dock in October?

On October 15, 2015 the Coast Guard will begin dockside enforcement of the safety requirements enacted by Congress in the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Act of 1988.

These requirements, such as immersion suits, training, cold water survival, have been the law for over 25 years.  However, a 2011 study funded by Maine Sea Grant and NOAA that is titled “Occupational Safety and Compliance in the Maine Commercial Fishing Industry: Status Report and Policy Recommendations“ indicates that a majority of fishing vessel captains in their survey did NOT have the required training. For example, 66% had never taken any life raft training and 59% had not received any immersion suit training. Only 54% of the commercial fishing vessels had the required Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs).

The study found that –

 “Despite the existence of the safety equipment items noted in the questionnaire, conversations with the captains revealed that in many cases the captains were unfamiliar with the proper use of that equipment. Some also had a difficult time locating it. Although present onboard, the safety equipment would neither have been accessible nor useful during the emergency situations for which they were intended. There was also a problem with broken or expired safety equipment, such as leaky survival suits, malfunctioning flares and horns, and first aid kits with few useable items remaining in them.”

The survey results indicated that “Maine captains surveyed generally reported being risk-loving rather than risk-averse in their daily lives” and that a significant majority felt that “driving a car was more dangerous than fishing”.

If the survey in Maine is any indicator of commercial fishing vessel operations nationally, there is a shipwreck coming in October – and the vessel owners and Coast Guard need to begin preparations to head it off.

The Coast Guard requested legal authority to conduct dockside exams because it was safer and more effective for all those involved.  Now they need to begin walking the docks and educating the fishing vessel owners about the October 15th deadline for complying with a 27 year old law.

A partnership between the Coast Guard and the fishing vessel community will make the dockside examination program a success.  If this is viewed and implemented the way local home construction inspectors work with the builder and homeowner to ensure they have a safe home then all parties will be satisfied with the process and outcome – and vessels won’t be tied to the dock unable to fish.

The Maine study can be found at this link.

Man Overboard: Prevention and Recovery

Approximately 31% of all deaths on commercial fishing vessels result from individuals falling overboard. To help prevent these deaths, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) has produced a video titled “Man Overboard: Prevention and Recovery”.  This video is designed to help those onboard commercial fishing vessels learn how to prevent individuals from falling overboard – and how to successfully recover someone who does fall overboard.

This excellent training video is at this link.

Guest Blog: a passenger’s view about lifesaving equipment

This guest blog is a follow-up to my posting earlier this week: UPDATE: How long can you tread water? House votes to repeal survival craft requirement

A passenger’s view about lifesaving equipment

By Richard Hiscock

Last fall we were passengers on a tour boat on America’s sixth great lake – Lake Champlain.  The vessel is 20 year old, fiberglass, diesel powered, forward pilot house with sheltered deck, approximately 50-feet in overall length (44.8 feet registered length). It is certified for 51 persons (POB) and carries Buoyant Apparatus for 26 stored on top of the shelter deck that will not keep people in distress out of the water.

We got underway about 10:30 with 46 adults (ranging in age from mid-twenties to late 60s early 70s) and one child – really an infant still in chest carrier.  Many of the passengers were in the area to attend a wedding later in the day.

As we got underway, there was no public announce regarding lifesaving equipment – the life-preservers stored in the overhead of the life-floats – their location or the location of instructions for their use.

The air temperature was about 55° F.  The water temperature was about 62° F.   We proceeded north on the Lake in the fog with no radar. There were no other vessels on the lake.  Coast Guard Station Burlington is 20 miles to the north.

WHAT IF there had been an explosion followed by a fire? The crew and 46 adults and the infant child would have been forced into the cold lake water.  They would have been expected to cling to the perimeter of the two life-floats with a rated capacity for 26 persons that hopefully would have floated free undamaged.  Had such an incident happened while in the fog, those on shore would not have seen the event.  Hopefully there would have been time to get off a radio message to the Coast Guard and the home base of the vessel.  And hopefully other vessels and the Coast Guard would have responded.

Given the water temperature is it likely that people could have died or been seriously injured? Yes it is. Particularly the infant which, if not kept out of the cold water, would have cooled very quickly despite the clothes it was bundled up in.

Anyone who thinks that such an explosion and fire could not occur, should remember that: the TITANIC was “unsinkable”; the ANDREA DORIA and STOCKHOLM were using the best available radar and still collided – the ANDREA DORIA sank; and that the COSTA CONCORDIA should never have run aground at Isola del Giglio in 2012.

If ‘we’ are so sure that casualties like these won’t happen then why carry any life-saving equipment at all.  If we are concerned that disaster can happen – despite our best efforts – and that passengers and crew might indeed have to evacuate even the best built, maintained and operated vessel, then the survival craft should keep them up out-of-the water.  And there should be enough survival craft for the individuals the vessel is certified to carry.

The fact that the many vessel owners do not support a requirement that all SURVIVAL CRAFT should keep individuals out-of-the-water and do not believe passenger vessels should have sufficient survival craft for all who might be on board would lead one to the conclusion that they are ignoring the possibility of a “TITANIC” type disaster.

Richard Hiscock is a long-time maritime safety consultant, advocating for marine and fishing vessel safety reform for over 35-years.  He maintains the safety website


A recent article in the Seattle Times titled “Recent breakdowns heighten concern about state’s fragile ferry fleet” chronicles  the challenges with  maintaining a fleet of  ferries that are, on average, 33 years old. Lynne Griffith, the Chief of the Washington State Ferries was quoted as saying “Our fleet of vessels is in operation 20 to 22 hours every day, so the window of opportunities for crews to do maintenance work is small.” That is not an acceptable answer when the lives of their passengers are at stake.

According to this article ferries missed 83 trips last year because of mechanical problems. Many of these mechanical problems are preventable such as the recent problem on the ferry TACOMA in which a wire came loose. Ms. Griffith was quoted as saying “All they had to do was tighten down the screws.”

She is correct – the screws do need to be tightened down – on the Washington State Ferry system.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has said that Safety Management Systems can help prevent marine casualties like the two that occurred in New York: The 2003 casualty involving the ferry ANDREW J. BARBERI that killed 11 passengers; and the 2013 casualty involving the SEASTREAK ferry that injured 80 people, 4 of them critically.

Section 610 of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 gave the Coast Guard the authority to require operators of passenger vessels, such as the Washington State Ferry System, establish a “Safety Management System” for their vessels.

The statute specifically states:

‘‘(c) In prescribing regulations for passenger vessels and small passenger vessels, the Secretary (Coast Guard) shall consider—

‘‘(1) the characteristics, methods of operation, and nature of the service of these vessels; and

‘‘(2) with respect to vessels that are ferries, the sizes of the ferry systems within which the vessels operate.’’

It is time for the Coast Guard to prescribe, audit, and enforce requirements to implement the 2010 law and require passenger vessels in the United States to operate and maintain effective Safety Management Systems. Safety Management is good business – it will also improve the reliability of these vessels. The safety system in place clearly has not been effective if it has resulted in 83 trips being missed due to mechanical breakdowns.

No more passengers should be injured or killed because the operators fail to adequately manage their vessels and personnel.

UPDATE: How long can you tread water? House votes to repeal survival craft requirement

Today the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1987, legislation that repeals the statutory requirement that existing passenger vessels, such as whale watching boats and party fishing boats, carry survival craft that will keep you out of the water.

This is a deadly step backward for the safety of the passengers and crew on these types of excursions.

This is the type of survival craft they want you to hold onto to save your life:

Life float photo

Many people will have a difficult time holding onto this in the ocean – let alone children, the elderly, and those with disabilities. These devices were first approved by the Federal Government in 1901 when there were no alternatives.  Today there are devices on the market that can keep you out of the water.

The owners small passenger vessels such as whale watching boats and party fishing boats are willing to take your money for you to have an enjoyable day on the water – but are not willing to keep you out of the water of things do not go as expected. They have the same belief as the owner of the TITANIC had in 1912 – their vessel won’t sink.

That is why this change is opposed by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) which includes organizations such as the Paralyzed Veterans of America and Easter Seals.

If you would like to read more background material on this issue, please read my other blog post titled “Congress to vote to repeal Survival Craft requirement.”

I do not believe that any Members of Congress who voted for this provision took up my challenge to hold onto one of these craft for 2 hours 20 miles off the coast of San Diego – with or without their a hand tied behind their back.

If you don’t want to have to tread water when your excursion vessel is in trouble, you may want to contact your Senator to oppose section 302 of H.R. 1987. You can enter your zip code in the attached link and it will help you make that contact.  Link: Contact your Senator.

Fishing Vessel Safety Manuals – safety begins with continuous training

In 2008, the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association began publishing the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Digest.  It is an excellent explanation of U.S. fishing vessel safety regulations. In 2003, the Government of Canada began publishing the Small Fishing Vessel Safety Manual which covers a broader array of safety topics including the Rules-of-the-Road, an explanation and illustration of stability, workplace safety, weather, and what to do in various types of emergencies. U.S. fishermen should become intimately familiar with both of these publications. In fact, it would be even better for someone to publish a U.S. version of the Small Fishing Vessel Safety Manual that combines the information contained in both publications and includes the new fishing vessel safety requirements that will come into effect in the United States on October 15, 2015. It would not be difficult to turn this into an educational App for fishermen’s handheld devices.

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