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USCG Busts American Fishing Firm for Employing Foreign Captains

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Published May 27, 2021 3:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard, working with CBP and NOAA, has investigated and put a stop to eight separate "paper captain" violations aboard tuna vessels in the Washington fleet. 

In seagoing circles, a "paper captain" is an inexperienced mariner who insists on being addressed as "captain." In U.S. fisheries enforcement, a "paper captain" is something different: it means a licensed U.S. national who is serving as the vessel's master for legal purposes (on paper) while a foreign national actually commands the vessel. The American "captain" is in reality a mate or deckhand. 

A "paper captain" arrangement is a clear violation of the Jones Act requirement (46 USC §12131) that a coastwise-qualified vessel must be under the command of a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, it is a relatively common occurrence in certain fisheries: according to the Coast Guard, many fishing vessels have engaged in a pattern and practice of hiring foreign nationals to serve on U.S. commercial fishing vessels in the capacity of captain, while U.S. nationals identified as captains on paper serve in lesser roles.

Since 2019, Coast Guard investigators - working with CBP and NOAA agents - have detected eight separate “paper captain” violations on vessels operating in the Pacific Northwest.

In these cases, the conspirators listed the “paper” captain on their Notices of Arrival/Departure submitted to the Coast Guard and CBP, and they gave fraudulent fishing agreement contracts to the Coast Guard. 

Filing fraudulent federal paperwork is an illegal act in itself, and since it leaves a paper trail, it often provides grounds for enforcement. (As a common example, oily waste MARPOL prosecutions often end in convictions for making falsified oil record book entries.)

“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.”

Providing fraudulent documents to the Coast Guard or other federal agencies is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years. So far, one Washington-based fishing fleet has paid $9,150 in civil penalties in connection with the investigation, and it has been cited for $140,000 in additional penalties which are still awaiting adjudication. The Coast Guard did not identify the operators involved.

It is not the first time that the Coast Guard has investigated U.S. fishing vessel operators for employing foreigners in this capacity. In 2017, the cutter Berry boarded a tuna longliner off Hawaii and cited the vessel for employing a "paper captain" arrangement. In certain operations in the Alaska fishing fleet, foreign "fish masters" have attracted questions about whether a vessel is truly "under the command" of a U.S. citizen - even though a licensed American mariner is nominally in charge of the ship.