The sinking of the Seattle-based Alaska Ranger, a 2008 maritime disaster that claimed the lives of five of 47 crew members, likely resulted from the failure of an aging hull that hadn't been properly maintained, according to a Coast Guard report released Wednesday.
The sinking of the Seattle-based Alaska Ranger, a 2008 maritime disaster that claimed the lives of five of 47 crew members, likely resulted from the failure of an aging hull that hadn’t been properly maintained, according to a Coast Guard report released Wednesday.
The Marine Board of Investigation report also included a harsh critique of a regional Coast Guard inspection program designed to improve the safety of the Alaska Ranger and other fishing vessels that catch and process fish off Alaska. Investigators found the program, launched in 2006, lacked effective enforcement. They recommended it be suspended.
“There were a few people in the field trying to make a positive impact but without the resources and technical expertise to make it work properly,” said Capt. Mike Rand, a now-retired Coast Guard officer who chaired the investigative board.
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Coast Guard leaders say the safety program has been strengthened since the sinking of the Alaska Ranger and it will continue. Under federal legislation passed by Congress last year, the program will be expanded to help improve the safety of aging fleets elsewhere.
The Alaska Ranger report is the latest in a series of Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigations to examine the commercial-fishing industry, which in many years ranks as the nation’s most dangerous occupation.
Though annual death tallies off Alaska have decreased in the past decade, the industry still claims a sizable toll. Between 2000 and 2009, 133 fishermen died within 200 miles of Alaska’s coasts.
The Alaska Ranger sank early March 23, 2008, after the 190-foot vessel left Dutch Harbor for mackerel fishing grounds in the Bering Sea. The flooding started in the stern of the vessel and spread from the rudder room through other areas of the vessel that were supposed to be sealed by watertight bulkheads.
Investigators wrote that the vessel was “inherently stable and would not have sunk had flooding been contained within the rudder room.”
The efforts to abandon ship were complicated by a loss of electrical power that caused the propeller to throw the vessel into reverse. This likely increased the rate of flooding and made it much more difficult for crew to deploy the life rafts.
More than half the crew did not reach the life rafts, and many ended up bobbing in the sea in survival suits. An extraordinary rescue effort undertaken by Coast Guard helicopter teams and a sister ship to the Alaska Ranger helped keep the death toll from rising much higher.
The Alaska Ranger was part of a fleet that catches cod, mackerel and other fish, and then freezes the catch on board. Spurred by a series of deadly accidents, which included the 2001 sinking of the Arctic Rose that killed 15 crew, the Coast Guard called for these vessels to join a new safety program if their owners wanted to continue to do a full range of processing.
The investigations board spent a sizable part of the report detailing problems with the new safety program, which included sharp disagreements between Alaska and Seattle Coast Guard offices about how to proceed.
Investigators also criticized the safety reviews of the Alaska Ranger.
A Seattle inspector failed to catch significant problems with the hull when the Alaska Ranger was examined in 2007 in Japan, according to a report. The inspector also did not enforce all the program requirements. “Despite his 32-day presence at the shipyard … , compliance with minimum safety standards … was not required or achieved,” the report concluded.
Cmdr. Chris Woodley, a Coast Guard official in Seattle who has been involved in the safety program, said Wednesday that many vessel operators were not able to meet an initial 2008 deadline for finishing improvements. So these operators, including the owner of the Alaska Ranger, were granted extensions and allowed to fish as long as they were making “good faith” efforts.
Since 2008, Woodley said the Coast Guard has strengthened the inspection process. All vessels in the fleet that joined the program are now in full compliance, he said.
Fishing Company of Alaska, the owner of the Alaska Ranger, had accidents involving other vessels. Those included a 1994 fire that killed a crew member and the 1998 sinking of another fishing vessel, without loss of life.
The investigation found numerous problems with the company’s operation of the Alaska Ranger, including the use of alcohol by crew and the employment of improperly licensed engineers.
The investigation also examined the actions of a Japanese fishmaster, Satoshi Konno, who was hired to help oversee the catching and processing of fish.
During hearings back in 2008, some crew said that Konno overstepped his authority and sometimes took command of the ship. And Steve Slotvig, a skipper of the vessel, said his abrupt midseason departure early in 2008 was spurred by fatigue and a troubled relationship with Konno.
“I had been up there for a long time, and when he got angry with me, I asked to be put on another vessel,” Slotvig testified at a Coast Guard hearing.
He was later replaced by a much less experienced American skipper, Peter Jacobsen. Jacobsen and Kono died when the ship sank.
Rand said testimony indicated Konno appeared to sometimes take control of the ship in violation of U.S. law. And the Coast Guard, acting under a recommendation in the report, will begin an investigation of Konno’s role on the ship.
In the years ahead, the regulation of the fishing industry will increase under a new law passed by Congress in 2010. New vessels will have to meet a new set of safety standards, and older vessels will have to meet an alternative set of safety standards.
“I commend the Coast Guard’s heroic rescue efforts but hope the fishing legislation that I helped enact into law last year will ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a statement Wednesday after the release of the Alaska Ranger report.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org