A marine contractor once charged with shore repairs alleged that misconduct by some Japanese crew contributed to safety problems.
A Coast Guard hearing into the July sinking of the Alaska Juris took a volatile turn on Thursday as a marine contractor once charged with shore repairs alleged that misconduct by some Japanese crew contributed to safety problems.
Herb Roeser, owner of Seattle-based Trans-Marine Propulsion Systems, alleged in his testimony that Masashi Yamada, a Japanese entrepreneur with wide-ranging business holdings, wielded behind-the-scenes control of the factory ship’s owner, Renton-based Fishing Company of Alaska.
Roeser said Japanese crews working for one of Yamada’s businesses, Anyo Fisheries, “basically ran” the Alaska Juris. Over the years, Roeser said, the Alaska Juris had been weakened by not only age but also improper modifications ordered by Japanese crew and their rough fishing tactics that slammed metal trawl gear — known as doors — against the stern of the vessel and contributed to cracks.
Roeser testified that when he stopped working for the company in 2011, he told the U.S. owner, the late Karena Adler, that “you need to put that ship in the scrap yard because nothing good is going to come of it.”
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But it remains unclear whether the issues cited by Roeser had anything to do with the ship’s demise, which was largely crewed by U.S. crew who held positions to watchdog safety. And Roeser was a difficult witness who occasionally used profane language, and became angry — and evasive — under hostile questioning from Mike Barcott, the Fishing Company of Alaska attorney.
Barcott told investigators that “many things have been said here today that we believe are simply false.”
During the two weeks of hearings that began Monday in Seattle, Coast Guard investigators, as well as a representative of the National Transportation Safety Board, are trying to figure out what caused the Alaska Juris to sink.
They have spent a lot of time questioning former U.S. crew and contractors about the complex network of piping in the ship, including piping that brought in seawater and a former crewman said had twice failed in the past.
They also are taking a broader look at Fishing Company of Alaska operations and Coast Guard oversight in an attempt to prevent future accidents. Though Coast Guard officials appeared concerned about deferred maintenance, David Crane, the chief port engineer for the company, testified about the millions of dollars spent on maintaining the boats and said the legitimate requests for repairs from crew were not turned down.
The Fishing Company of Alaska vessels catch, process and freeze fish that are then sold to Anyo Fisheries, a Japanese company. Roeser said he began working on the company vessels in the 1980s, making trips to Japan, where he met with Yamada to discuss business, and also working closely with Adler, who died Jan. 1
Fishing Company of Alaska vessels go to sea with small cadres of Anyo Fisheries employees who serve as technicians and fishing experts — known as fish masters. They would join the U.S. crew aboard these vessels, which federal law requires to be commanded by a licensed U.S. captain.
Fishing Company of Alaska has suffered a series of serious high-seas mishaps, including the 2008 Bering Sea sinking of the Alaska Ranger, which killed five of the 47 crew. A Coast Guard Marine Board concluded that the tragedy was due to a poorly maintained hull, and had enough concerns about the influence of Japanese crew to include a recommendation to investigate whether the vessel was “improperly under control of an unlicensed non-U.S. citizen.”
The Seattle Times previously reported that some former U.S. crew were concerned about Japanese control over Fishing Company of Alaska vessels, and noted three reports that the U.S. Coast Guard received in 2005 alleging physical assaults by a Japanese fish master against a licensed U.S. mate.
More than eight years after the Alaska Ranger sank, on July 26 of this year, the engine-room flooding on the Alaska Juris prompted the 46 crew to abandon the vessel and crowd into life rafts before being rescued by other ships. In its aftermath, Coast Guard investigators once again have been delving into the operations of Fishing Company of Alaska.
Roeser’s Thursday testimony took up much of the afternoon.
Barcott, the company attorney, asserted that Roeser, contrary to his earlier testimony, had not quit Fishing Company of Alaska due to safety concerns but was let go by the company and thus was biased.
In his questioning, Barcott implied that Roeser — once fired by the company — held work files “hostage” and demanded money.
At that point Roeser abruptly said he was done with his testimony. “I don’t want to talk with him (Barcott) under any circumstances,” he declared.
After a break, Roeser did return to testify but was not eager to continue.
The Coast Guard hearings are scheduled to continue through Friday of next week.