After a two-year inquiry, the U.S. Coast Guard released its report on the fatal sinking of the F/V Destination this month.
In it, the Marine Board of Investigation identified four primary factors that contributed to the crab boat's capsizing near St. George Island — and the deaths of all six crew members.
To learn more about the findings, KUCB's Laura Kraegel spoke with Captain Lee Boone, the Coast Guard's chief of investigations and casualty analysis in Washington D.C.
KUCB: I want to start by asking you about the Coast Guard's first conclusion that the vessel's stability instructions were out of date. It's federally required that boats have stability books outlining how much gear they can carry safety and how it should all be loaded. But what exactly are a boat owner's responsibilities in terms of those instructions? And in this case, where did the Destination's owners go wrong?
LEE BOONE: So the responsibility lies with the owner for not only providing those stability instructions, but updating them appropriately. Presumably, if there were no changes to the vessel that affected the stability instructions, they would always be valid. But vessels grow. Sometimes they change their configuration, their gear. They change their loading conditions. This is the responsibility of the owner to track and make sure that the stability instructions that are given to the master for operating the vessel are up to date and useful in operation of the vessel. In this case, there was information about the carrying of heavier crab pots, modifications to the bulwark, and modifications to the bulbous bow that the Coast Guard was not even aware of. So we never had the opportunity to even intervene.
KUCB: The report shows the Destination's stability book hadn't been updated since 1993, but the Coast Guard didn't find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing in that. So is this just a case of somebody dropping the ball? Of negligence?
BOONE: Well, clearly, we think it was a failure. And therefore, we have referred this to an enforcement action and civil penalty matter. First of all, I should start with saying our civil penalty process is about compliance. It's not about punishment, really. We are trying to compel compliance with our regulations and standards. It really has nothing to do with the unfortunate and tragic consequence here. But essentially, we gather the evidence. We gather the jurisdictional elements. We put together a case. And we submit it to a Coast Guard hearing office. The Coast Guard hearing office reviews the case and determines if we have met the elements to prove there was indeed a failure — and then assigns the penalty.
KUCB: And that would be some kind of financial penalty? A fine?
BOONE: Yes, yes. It's a monetary penalty. Exactly.
KUCB: And while we wait to see if the owners are penalized — and if so, by how much — I also want to ask you about the responsibilities of the captain, because those seem to tie in to other factors the Coast Guard has identified as primary causes of the sinking. The second was the Destination was overloaded and improperly loaded with crab pots and other gear. Did the investigation uncover why Jeff Hathaway got underway in that condition? Was it just because he was going off an incorrect stability book? Or did he make a decision to overload on top of having a bad book?
BOONE: Right. I think, to answer that question simply: It would be a combination. The marine board found that not only were the stability instructions not updated, but also there was a failure to comply with the instructions that were given. So it was indeed both.
KUCB: The third causal factor also seems to put some responsibility on the captain, in that he decided to head out despite weather warnings about heavy icing conditions that could pose a threat to a boat's stability. What can you tell me about that?
BOONE: First of all, I should say it was very evident in the marine board's report that this particular captain was well-respected and loved by his crew. But still, there were what appear to be some errors made in the decision to get underway. There were heavy freezing spray conditions in that area, and we know that there was some pressure to deliver what the vessel had onboard so they could continue to fish. So we saw that operational pressure at work in this case, and it appears it affected the master's judgement to make a good decision. And that balance, really, between safety and operations — in this case, between safety and fishing — is one that unfortunately got out of whack.
KUCB: That seems like a good segue into the fourth big factor that contributed to the loss of the vessel, which was the crew's level of fatigue and tiredness. I know they got a late start on crab after fishing for cod. They had a delivery deadline that was looming. How much of a role did those kinds of industry pressures play in this capsizing?
BOONE: So, as the marine board pointed out, it's really incumbent upon the crew to manually remove the ice. And we know from testimony that the crew was very fatigued after cod season when they were passing through Dutch Harbor. And we know — based on the speeds that the vessel was traveling as it passed through the lee of St. George Island and also the time of day — that likely the crew was sleeping when the tragedy occurred. So we believe fatigue had a big factor in this case. If they were up and alert and removing ice, perhaps [they would have been able] remove one of the causal factors in this case.
KUCB: In the report, after laying out all of these causes as to the sinking, the marine board also recommended that the Coast Guard implement — or consider implementing — a variety of new regulations. They suggested regulations to require owners to report the changes that they make to their boats, regulations that would specify the weight of crab pots, that would have your agency develop policies about how to manage crew fatigue … But the commandant declined to pursue any of those suggestions. What can you tell me about the process that surrounds the possibility of new regulations — and then why none are happening after a case like this?
BOONE: So, first of all, the Coast Guard will consider anything practicable that we can do to prevent these casualties. So there was a discussion because the marine board recommended it, and we seriously consider all recommendations of the marine board. But we came back to the finding that our current regulations were sufficient to have prevented this casualty. But we didn't stop there. While we didn't concur with changing the regulations, we still think there's something to do. And so we're going back and looking at our outreach, looking at our training, looking at our policy for how we do examinations — to make sure that our operators out there are aware of these things. To make our system as safe as we can.
KUCB: We should note that kind of outreach and training is important because crab boats are not required to have regular Coast Guard inspections. The stability instructions are required, but compliance checks are all totally voluntary. And that means the Coast Guard has to go out and meet crews and build relationships with these very busy fishermen to encourage them and remind them to stay in compliance with the rules. And so if you're now looking at expanding that kind of outreach beyond things that already exist — like offering voluntary boat inspections and opportunities to weigh crab pots every so often — what will that new effort look like?
BOONE: So the commandant directed the commander of thirteenth district — that's in Seattle — and the seventeenth district in Alaska to assemble an outreach plan. We feel that the local Coast Guard offices know their clientele and their fleet the best. What exactly it'll look like — that'll be up to those Coast Guard offices to determine how most effectively to get the word out. But the things you mentioned already — the events, the walking the dock, the education, the websites, the training offered online, all of the above … We feel that whatever it takes to reach those that need it, we should do it.
KUCB: To press you a little further, though, if the goal is really to make things as safe as possible, why not just tell these crews and these boat owners that they have to do x, y, and z? Instead of having voluntary compliance checks, why not just get it on the books and make it mandatory? Could you do that?
BOONE: Well, we would need the authority to go further. The Coast Guard has tried to increase our inspection authority on fishing vessels. But that authority would have to come from Congress. Our regulations are built on the authority that we are granted, so we have to work within those authorities to do the best we can to affect the system of safety that we have. And if regulations were the best way to tackle this, then the Coast Guard would pursue regulations. But in this particular case, we didn't see how more regulations were going to solve the problem when, honestly, the existing regulations weren't even followed.
KUCB: So you're working now on how to get more people to follow those existing regulations, because the Coast Guard thinks they're enough — and because it's something that's possible within the authority you currently have. With all of that in mind, what do you want fishermen and boat owners to take away from the loss of the Destination and its six-person crew?
BOONE: If there was a message that I'd like to leave: The primary responsibility for safety lies with the vessel owner and captain. While the Coast Guard can assist in that compliance and help them with education and awareness and familiarity, ultimately, it's up for the owner and captain to absorb this and be in compliance. We can never replace that responsibility to actually be in compliance.