Commercial fishing has one of the highest industry death rates in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), published on November 2, says the U.S. Coast Guard hasn’t fully implemented statutory requirements to improve commercial fishing vessel safety.
From fiscal years 2011 through 2021, the Coast Guard budgeted a total of roughly $8.7 million ($9.6 million in fiscal year 2021 dollars) to its commercial fishing vessel safety efforts. To improve safety in this extremely dangerous industry, Coast Guard conducts dockside exams which include a review of a vessel’s documents and safety equipment, engages with industry through safety trainings and policy letters, and collaborates with other federal agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, by sharing accident data and supporting vessel safety research. Vessels that successfully complete an exam receive a 2-year safety decal from the Coast Guard.
GAO found that The Coast Guard fully implemented five of 22 key statutory requirements related to various aspects of commercial fishing vessel safety (e.g., equipment, training, exams) enacted from fiscal years 2011 through 2021. However, it has either partially or not implemented 17 requirements. One requirement that the Coast Guard does not intend to implement is to develop alternate safety standards for older fishing vessels, which account for almost 80 percent of fishing vessel losses. The Coast Guard stated it does not have the authority to address the requirement to develop alternate safety standards for older fishing vessels. However, based on GAO’s review of the applicable statutory provisions, the watchdog said the Coast Guard does have the authority to implement this requirement.
In June 2016, the Coast Guard issued a proposed rule intended to address nine of the other 16 outstanding requirements. However, GAO found that as of August 2022, the rule had not been finalized, and the Coast Guard had no detailed plan for implementing these requirements.
GAO determined that the Coast Guard has established strategic goals and performance goals for its commercial fishing vessel safety program, but found it has not fully incorporated other key performance management practices, such as establishing performance goals that fully address all aspects of its strategic goals, setting realistic targets for its performance goals, and using performance data to assess progress towards program goals. Coast Guard program officials acknowledged that establishing performance goals for the commercial fishing vessel safety program that fully address the program’s strategic goals would improve the agency’s ability to assess program performance. These officials also told GAO that it is generally challenging to assess the performance of prevention programs, such as the commercial fishing vessel safety program, because it is difficult to assess the extent to which an adverse event, such as a vessel loss or fatality, was prevented. Following the watchdog’s review, the Coast Guard said its Fishing Vessel Safety Division “will establish performance goals that align with the commercial fishing vessel safety program’s strategic goals; establish targets for those performance goals; and use performance data to assess program needs, relevant trends, and progress towards program goals”.
GAO is making six recommendations to the Coast Guard, including to implement alternate safety standards for older vessels, develop a plan with time frames to implement the other outstanding statutory requirements, and fully incorporate key performance management practices. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with five of six recommendations. It did not concur with GAO’s recommendation that the Coast Guard develops and implements an alternate safety compliance program, stating that the Coast Guard determined that an alternate safety compliance program is intended to be an alternate to survey and classing requirements, and implementing regulations for the baseline safety requirements from the 2010 and subsequent Coast Guard authorization acts.
GAO is not alone in its concern for fishing vessel safety. In September, the National Transportation Safety Board called for the Coast Guard to increase the scope of commercial fishing vessel safety examinations, following an investigation into the sinking of fishing vessel Emmy Rose in 2020. NTSB wants vessel examinations to include inspection of a vessel’s freeing port cover design to determine whether the covers are constructed to allow water to readily flow outboard, as intended, and not inboard. A second recommendation was to include inspection of a vessel’s hatch covers to determine whether they are watertight and have adequate securing mechanisms. NTSB also reiterated an earlier safety recommendation to the Coast Guard to require all vessel personnel be provided with a personal locator beacon (PLB). NTSB issued that recommendation following the sinking of the cargo vessel El Faro in 2015 in which all 33 crewmembers perished. NTSB also reiterated the recommendation after the fishing vessel Scandies Rose sank off Sutwik Island, Alaska, in 2019. Two of the vessel’s crewmembers were rescued; the other five were never found. NTSB concluded in both investigations that personal locator beacons would have aided search and rescue operations by providing continuously updated and correct coordinates of crewmembers’ locations.