The Coast Guard investigation into the 2017 sinking of the Seattle-based Destination, released last month, was the latest in a long succession of Coast Guard inquiries to spotlight serious stability problems that led to commercial fishing boats going down and their crews dying.
Earlier findings prompted Congress, in a 2010 overhaul of commercial fishing safety laws, to require operators take a short course that reviews how loading gear, boat modifications and changing weather conditions can affect a vessel’s ability to stay afloat.
But nine years later, the Coast Guard has yet to come up with regulations to enforce the safety mandate. Even in the aftermath of the Destination investigation, which documented the missteps that contributed to the loss of six crew members in the Bering Sea, Coast Guard leaders have yet to say when this training rule might be in place. So the stability courses remain voluntary, often sparsely attended.
“It’s’ just exasperating,” said Jerry Dzugan, executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, which offers a one-day training course. “Some laws just die and go away because no one pays any attention to the fact that regulations were never finalized.”
The Coast Guard also has failed to sign off on other rules called for in the 2010 legislation, including additional types of training and development of new safety standards for many older fishing vessels.
The Coast Guard inaction is part of a slow-walking of safety regulations that has spanned Republican and Democratic presidencies. This has reflected some resistance within the fishing industry to the costs of new rules but also stems from budgetary and staffing strains that have at times made the Coast Guard wary of taking on new watchdog responsibilities.
The bureaucratic inertia has deepened during the Trump administration, which has put in place an executive order that calls for two regulations to be removed for every new one that’s added and puts caps on how much an agency can spend on enforcing rules.
That has complicated the task of finalizing new safety rules even as the Coast Guard’s own investigative findings affirm the importance of getting them in place.
The three Coast Guard officers who conducted the Marine Board of Investigation into the loss of the Destination recommended that federal regulations be updated to require commercial fishing boat operators, as well as owners, show proof of completing a stability course.
In a written response included in the final report, assistant commandant Rear Adm. J.P. Nadeau did not commit to a timetable for publishing a new rule.
Nadeau later told The Seattle Times he does support a training rule but only for operators — not owners. He could not say when a rule might be on the books, noting that the Trump administration’s executive order makes that task more difficult.
“We still intend to publish regulations. They are taking longer than most of us would like,” Nadeau said.
During an April 4 congressional hearing, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., cited the “heartbreaking sinking” of the Destination, and asked Adm. Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard commandant, when the training rule would be put in place.
“I would like to get back to you with a firm date. I don’t have that here,” Schultz responded.
Years of inaction
The 2010 congressional legislation — part of the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act — appeared to set the stage for a major expansion of safety training.
Legislation passed in 1988 mandated emergency drill training, and required Coast Guard-certified training for instructors.
In the western U.S., two nonprofit groups — the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and the Seattle-based North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association — developed those initial courses. Their leaders then worked with industry officials to put together a five-day course syllabus covering stability and other topics, such as navigation and avoiding collisions, required by the 2010 act.
But no surge of captains attended the new classes since the legislation was never followed up by a Coast Guard-drafted rule.
“There are years that we don’t even hold the [stability] course, and normally we get one or two people,” said Karen Conrad, executive director of the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association.
Dzugan said stability courses for the Alaska association average about seven students per class.
The 2010 act also charged the Coast Guard with the much more complicated assignment of devising new safety standards for older fishing boats longer than 50 feet. Congress, realizing this would be a big undertaking, gave the Coast Guard seven years.
The Coast Guard office in Seattle initially appeared poised to play a big role in that effort.
The Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound already had developed safety requirements for a fleet that catches and processes bottom-dwelling fish off Alaska. The Seattle staff offered to develop a broader regional program that would cover some 582 vessels home-ported in Washington and serve as a model for the national effort, according to internal agency documents reviewed by The Seattle Times.
But the funding and support didn’t come through.
By 2016 — with the deadline for publishing the rules just a year away — industry officials were alarmed by the Coast Guard’s lack of progress. They feared a last-minute push could bring poorly crafted regulations that would hamstring their fleets, and congressional representatives from fishing states rallied to their side.
“We are … concerned about the sluggish pace of the design and implementation of the program will place an unnecessary burden on fishermen who may be required to make costly changes to their vessels in less time than the statute intended to provide them,” wrote more than 30 members of Congress, including eight from Washington, in a June 15, 2016, letter to Vice Adm. Fred Midgette, then the Coast Guard’s deputy commandant.
The next month, the Coast Guard suspended the rule-making process, and announced it would publish voluntary measures for owners to improve the safety of their boats and for operators to boost training.
The Coast Guard later indicated that at some future date it would consider mandatory safety rules.
Would more training have changed Destination’s fate?
The two-year Destination investigation brought new scrutiny to the Coast Guard’s slow-moving safety rule-making process.
During August 2017 hearings on the sinking, Conrad and Dzugan each testified about the scant attendance in their classes.
Then in March of this year, the Marine Board report concluded that the Destination — even before it left the port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska — had serious stability problems that investigators blamed on decisions by the boat captain and boat owner:
• The Destination carried an estimated 200 crab pots that were heavier than what was recorded in a shipboard document used to guide loading that the owner should have had updated. Stability was further impaired by more than 7,000 pounds of bait that was not supposed to be placed atop the stack of pots.
• With a forecast of difficult weather, Capt. Jeff Hathaway set out from Dutch Harbor with a fatigued crew, who then did not appear to remove a heavy buildup of ice that further eroded stability.
• A hatch improperly left open allowed the rapid flooding that doomed the crew.
Hathaway was a veteran with more than 30 years’ experience harvesting crab off Alaska. He was a respected and able skipper who may have felt no need to take a class on stability. There is no record that he ever enrolled — on a voluntary basis — in the training called for by Congress back in 2010
If Hathaway had taken the course, would he have loaded less onto the boat? Would he have pushed boat owner David Wilson to follow through on a recommendation for a new stability test that would have accurately weighed the pots?
Or would the class have made no difference in the tragic outcome?
Dzugan notes that 98% of fishermen who participated in the Alaska association stability classes said in surveys that the knowledge they gained would change their safety practices.
Since Congress passed the 2010 act, more than 100 fishermen have lost their lives at sea due to their boats that sank or capsized, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
“Some of those people would not have died, I believe, if that protective training had been required,” Dzugan said.