|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.’”
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
||Type of FV
|Eastern Shipbuilding (FL)
||Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation
||Paul C. Johnson
|Dakota Creek Shipbuilding
|Dakota Creek Shipbuilding
||Alaska Longline Co.