NTSB: Conflict Between Fishmasters Led to Collision

Damage to the Koorale's topsides (NTSB)

Published Aug 30, 2021 11:32 PM by The Maritime Executive

In its latest annual review of safety investigations, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) highlighted a collision between two American tuna fishing vessels that occurred because of a disagreement between their fishmasters - not their captains. 

In June 2019, the tuna seiners American Eagle and Koorale were operating in the Pacific about 1,500 miles to the northeast of American Samoa. The Koorale had departed Pago Pago on May 31, and the American Eagle followed her the day after. Both vessels set a course for a productive tuna fishing area near Kiribati.

Like many U.S.-flag commercial fishing vessels in the Hawaiian and American Samoan fleets, the captains of these two vessels were American citizens, but other members of the crew were not. The captains and fishmasters told NTSB investigators that the fishmasters controlled the vessel while fishing and navigating to and from port; the statutory captain was referred to on board as the "navigator."

The tuna fishing fleet has its own set of protocols for determining fishing rights in the region, and the vessels communicate within an informal "code group" to avoid conflict while under way. On June 15, two days before the casualty, the Koorale and American Eagle both pursued the same school of tuna at about the same time. As per the local protocol, their fishmasters made contact with each other by radio to talk about who had the right to harvest the tuna first. The discussion turned into an argument, they told NTSB after the casualty, with each accusing the other of insulting behavior. 

On June 17, both vessels were looking for tuna and finding little. At about 1630 hours, both crews spotted the same school of tuna at about the same time, just as they had two days earlier. Both vessels maneuvered quickly to get into position to cast their nets, and they closed distance on each other. Unlike the previous encounter, they did not attempt to make contact by VHF. 

On board both vessels, the fishmasters had the conn. The Koorale's fishmaster maintained his vessel’s course and speed, assuming that American Eagle was going to turn away. Likewise, the American Eagle fishmaster saw the Koorale coming, and he thought it would be a "race" to the catch. Both were relying on the informal rules of their "code group" to determine give-way status, and they were not using COLREGS to inform their decisionmaking. The American Eagle was the give-way vessel per the Rules of the Road, NTSB said, but she did not give way. Neither vessel took action until the collision was inevitable. 

At about 1704, the American Eagle’s starboard bow crashed into the port side of the Koorale, crushing a part of the Koorale's wheelhouse. Luckily for the crews, neither vessel sustained flooding, and both were able to return to port under their own power. No injuries were reported.

After the accident, the fishmasters told NTSB that they had not wanted to talk on the radio because of their argument two days earlier. The captains on Koorale and American Eagle did not attempt to intervene, because they were below the fishmasters in the onboard hierarchy.

Company-appointed fishmasters have been a target of U.S. regulatory scrutiny since at least 2009, when a fishmaster's decisions were implicated in the loss of the U.S.-flag fishing vessel Alaska Ranger. The U.S. Coast Guard often takes enforcement action against arrangements that effectively put a foreign national in command of a U.S.-flagged fishing vessel. In May 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard, CBP and NOAA said that they had detected and halted eight separate "paper captain" violations on U.S. vessels in the Washington fishing fleet.  

“The employment of a foreign national as captain aboard a U.S.-flagged commercial fishing vessel is illegal,” said Lt. Cmdr. Colin Fogarty, the enforcement chief at Coast Guard Sector Columbia River in Warrenton, Oregon. “The practice of utilizing ‘paper captains’ subverts U.S. laws and regulations designed to protect hard-working American fishermen and mariners.”