The sinking of the Seattle-based Destination — with the loss of all six of its crew — prompted new spot checks of crab boats. Many carrying a full load of crab pots could be overweight, adding to the risk.
Alaska crab boats carry stability reports meant to guide the safe loading of up to several hundred crab pots that may be used to bring in a catch from the turbulent Bering Sea.
But Coast Guard spot checks found that most of these documents significantly underestimate the weights of the steel-framed pots.
The checks were spurred by a Coast Guard investigation into the Feb. 11 sinking of the Seattle-based Destination and the loss of all six of its crew. One of the vessel’s pots — retrieved from the Bering Sea bottom in July — was found to weigh more than the Destination’s stability report had assumed, according to testimony in a Marine Board of Investigation into the disaster.
“This is not something we had done with any real regularity in the past, and the testimony we heard from the Destination got us thinking that we should take a look,” said Scott Wilwert, who coordinates the Coast Guard 17th District Fishing Vessel Safety Program.
Coast Guard teams last month weighed pots on more than 40 vessels as the crews prepared to depart the ports of Dutch Harbor and King Cove for the Oct. 15 start of the Bristol Bay king crab harvest.
The stability reports are developed by naval architects and are based on a series of calculations about what boats can safely carry.
The Coast Guard inspection teams found that most stability reports were prepared years ago and underestimate the weight of current pots by 30 to 90 pounds. So, if a vessel set out to sea with the maximum number of pots allowed in these books, it would be thousands of pounds over weight.
“When we looked at the stability books from the late ’90s and early 2000s, the assumed weights — and in some cases the size — of the pots were not what they are using today, “ Wilwert said.
Wilwert said crab-boat captains frequently opt to carry far fewer than the maximum number of pots listed in their stability reports. And in the November inspections, Coast Guard inspectors did not find any vessels trying to leave port overloaded.
On its final voyage, the Destination was headed off to the start of the snow-crab harvest with a big deck load that included more than 3,000 pounds of bait and some 200 crab pots.
The crab-pot load did not exceed the numbers allowed in the 1993 stability report. But that report assumed a weight more than 100 pounds less than the weight of the Destination pot later retrieved from the sea bottom off St. George in the Pribilof Islands, according to testimony given to the Coast Guard.
A safety alert published in October counseled fishing-vessel owners and crew to confirm the accuracy of the stability reports and pay special attention to pot weights. If the weights exceed the stability report, it’s important to update the document, the Coast Guard safety alert stated.
The safety alert also addressed the hazards of freezing spray that the Destinaton likely encountered during its final voyage, according to weather reports and accounts from other vessels in the same area on Feb. 11. As ice formed on pots, the vessel probably picked up more weight.
The safety alert said stability booklets assume that the pots accumulate a thickness of more than 1.3 inches along horizontal services but real-life conditions “easily” exceed that amount. The alert said ice can make a vessel dangerously unstable and counseled crews to load less gear when freezing spray is forecast.
Wilwert said the spot checks prompted by the Destination were conducted on nearly 70 percent of all the vessels registered for the Bristol Bay king crab harvest.
The oversight effort received good reviews from the industry.
“It seems like a good idea, and we certainly welcome the effort,” said Tyson Fick, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.
David Harris, captain of the Arctic Mariner and licensed by the Coast Guard to operate fishing vessels of up to 1,600 tons, said the Coast Guard check indicated that his pots were 35 pounds heavier than the 750-pound weight estimate in the vessel’s stability report.
That report allowed him to load as many as 180 pots, although he said he never carries more than 150 pots. Because of the Coast Guard findings, he is revising the load limit to no more than 161 pots, which means he can stack them only four tiers high rather than the five tiers previously allowed.
“I had never weighed a pot, and always wanted to,” Harris said.
Harris has already finished bringing in his boat’s share of the king crab harvest and is back at his home in Snohomish County.