The report, to include recommendations on how to improve safety, marks the latest in a long line of Coast Guard inquiries into disasters at sea in the U.S. fishing industry. Have they made a difference?
The Coast Guard on Sunday will release results of its investigation into why, without a mayday call, the Seattle-based Destination sank in 2017 in Alaska’s deadliest crabbing accident in more than a decade.
Over the years, Coast Guard investigative reports into fishing disasters have repeatedly spotlighted the hazards of one of the nation’s most dangerous industries, sometimes helping to push reforms but often falling short of bringing major change.
All six of the Destination crew were lost on Feb. 11, 2017, and the report is expected to offer the most likely scenario for what happened on a chill day in the Bering Sea when freezing spray was thought to have frozen on the boat. The report also will offer safety recommendations to try to prevent such losses of life.
The report was prepared by a three-person Marine Board of Investigation, which — in coordination with the National Transportation Safety Board — conducted the Coast Guard’s highest level of inquiry.
Two weeks of hearings were held in Seattle in August 2017.
The investigation included a Coast Guard stability analysis that found the Destination — as it was assumed to be loaded before it left port on its final voyage — failed to comply with federal regulations.
The final report scheduled for release Sunday will include the Coast Guard commandant’s responses to board recommendations.
“The most important thing to remember is that six people lost their lives in this tragedy, and their families are forever changed,” said Capt. Lee Boone, chief of Coast Guard investigation, in a written statement. Boone will be part of a Coast Guard team that will brief the crew’s families this weekend before meeting with reporters Sunday at Coast Guard Base Seattle.
Special Report: NO RETURN: The final voyage of the Destination
A Seattle Times special report, “No Return,” last month chronicled life aboard the Destination and examined the sinking and its aftermath.
The Coast Guard inquiry is part of a decades-long effort to improve the safety of the fishing fleets in an industry where many bridle at new federal regulation. Over time, the average annual death toll for fishermen has declined, including off Alaska.
The marine boards are charged with making recommendations. Sometimes those are rejected or the Coast Guard command does not follow through.
In 1983, the Coast Guard formed a marine board to investigate the loss that year of 14 crew members in the sinkings of two Anacortes-based crab boats.
The board members found a “contributing cause” was the failure to conduct new stability tests after structural changes were made to the boats. That board wanted the Coast Guard to recommend periodic stability tests to give crews updated, accurate instructions for how the boat should be loaded with fuel, crab pots and other gear.
The Coast Guard commandant rejected that request, saying such testing at specific intervals would be unnecessary, costly and sometimes not timely.
More than three decades later, periodic stability tests still are not required for crab boats. The Destination’s test was done in 1993, and the Coast Guard analysis indicated that changes to the gear and vessel over the years made it badly out of date.
Sometimes, Coast Guard investigations have helped to spur change.
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A Coast Guard review of the 1985 sinking of the Seattle-based Western Sea found that the boat had no survival suits, no emergency beacon to sound an alert should disaster strike and no life raft. At that time, none were required.
Robert and Peggy Barry were outraged. Their son Peter, on a summer break from Yale, died while fishing for salmon on the Western Sea.
The Barrys galvanized a movement of bereaved families who had lost loved ones on that boat and others. They helped persuade Congress in 1988 to pass legislation requiring that basic survival gear be carried by the major fishing fleets working off the nation’s shores.
“It was not just having grieving parents, but also it was the right political climate in Congress,” said Jerry Dzugan, executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, which offers training to fishing crews.
Dzugan served for years on the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee, set up by the 1988 legislation to offer counsel to the Coast Guard efforts. Some members of the committee were convinced that the new law empowered the government to require mandatory crew training. But industry representatives on the panel opposed such a move, according to Dzugan.
Then in 1990 came the sinking of a factory trawler, the Seattle-based Aleutian Enterprise, which resulted in the deaths of nine of the 31 crew and federal criminal charges against the captain and some officials of the company that owned the boat.
A marine board investigation documented a chaotic attempt to evacuate the vessel that revealed a lack of disaster training.
“The Aleutian Enterprise report came out at a pivotal moment. It completely changed the momentum,” said Dzugan. “Some of the biggest corporate entities kind of got shamed.”
The advisory committee then backed putting mandatory training into regulations that stemmed from the 1988 law, according to Dzugan.
Knowing success and failure
Chris Woodley, a retired Coast Guard captain, had both success and failure with recommendations he made while on a Marine Board investigating the 2002 explosion that apparently sank the Seattle-based Galaxy fish processor, killing three crew.
Woodley was convinced that requiring strobe lights on survival suits would save lives, enabling nighttime rescuers to spot any crew bobbing in the water or huddled in life rafts. “I thought it was a no-brainer,” said Woodley, who serves as executive director of the Groundfish Forum, an industry group.
The Coast Guard rejected this recommendation, saying the lights might cause survivors to experience vertigo or become disoriented.
The Coast Guard did approve another marine board recommendation for a program to require a range of safety improvements to an aging fleet of catcher processors known as the head-and-gut fleet.
Woodley’s Coast Guard career took him from Alaska to Seattle, where he helped to launch the new safety program — called “alternative compliance.” In this new position, he was able to put in a requirement that strobe lights be put on all crew survival suits in this fleet.
The Alaska Ranger, one of the boats in the head-and-gut fleet, sank in 2008, killing five of 47 crew and prompting a massive rescue effort. Woodley said this week that the strobe lights were key to helping locate survivors.
In 2010, Congress again acted to increase safety in the fishing fleets and directed the Coast Guard to develop new standards for many other older fishing vessels nationwide.
The Coast Guard has struggled with personnel shortages that make it difficult to take on ambitious new efforts to improve fishing safety. The Coast Guard was supposed to begin phasing in the new program by 2017 and have it done by 2020.
That did not happen.
Instead, in a 2017 document, the Coast Guard declared it was unable to come up with the new regulatory standards, and published a set of voluntary standards.
“They have just dropped the ball,” said John Myers, a Seattle-based naval architect who teaches stability training to fishermen.