Fish SAFE Adopts New Set of Best Practices to Improve Fishing Vessel Safety

Shrimping season recently opened for sport and commercial fishing off the coasts of Washington and British Columbia. A new set of Best Practices has been recommended by industry leaders following the loss of two commercial prawn vessels last season. One fishing vessel loaded with prawn gear developed a starboard list, downflooded and floundered. The vessel was recovered, but written off as a loss. Another vessel listed and sank with 1000 liters of fuel onboard soon after.

Fishing vessel stability is essential to fishing vessel safety, as well as commercial fishermen's lives. The new best-practice encourages gear to be stored low to maintain stability and that traps be stacked evenly and protected against shifting. It also recommends that crews be instructed on the effects of winds across a loaded deck and low fuel levels.

The United States Coast Guard conducts a voluntary commercial fishing vessel safety examination as part of its Fishing Vessel Safety Program. The National Transportation and Safety Board has also issued a Best Practices Guide to Vessel Stability. That document also provides suggestions for storage and weight management so that a vessel can maintain sufficient stability to counter the external forces generated by weather, fishing conditions, and capsizes during the entire voyage.

Admiralty and Maritime courts in Washington have assessed responsibility for casualties caused by unstable vessels. In Northern Queen Inc. v. Kathryn Kinnear, 298 F.3d 1090 (9th Cir. 2002), the appellate court affirmed the lower court's ruling, which prevented the deceased captain's estate from recovering damages from the fishing vessel owner. The fishing vessel was completing crab season when crabbing was interrupted by bad weather. Wind blew ice through the fishing vessels' gear and added weight to the boat already laden with 55,000 pounds of crab. The boat continued to travel a speed of 5 to 6 knots instead of 1-2 knots, which caused even more ice to build up from the spray.

The federal district court determined that the vessel owners were not entitled to exoneration or limitation of liability under the Limitation of Liability Act (46 USC, Sec. 181) due to the unseaworthiness of the vessel. However, the captain was found to have neglected his duty to maintain a safe vessel, and his estate was precluded from recovery. The appellate court upheld the lower court's determination that the captain was aware of the conditions onboard that posed a danger to the vessel, that he had a duty to take precautions like reducing speed and throwing crab pots overboard, and that he violated his duty to operate the vessel safely.

Fishermen onboard are subject to the owners' and captain's willingness to follow the best practices of fishing vessel safety. If the owners or captain fail in maintaining a seaworthy vessel and the failure results in an injury, fishmermen may be able to pursue legal action to recover maintenance and cure. The experienced fishing vessel accident attorneys at Gordon and Webb know how to maximize compensation under maritime law. If you have been injured in a fishing vessel accident, call for a free consultation today at 877.00.1007.

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