Federal regulators want to stiffen inspections of small commercial fishing boats following two disasters, including the 2009 sinking of the Lady Mary off Cape May.
National Transportation Safety Board officials are urging the U.S. Coast Guard to require stability tests for all boats, not just fishing boats larger than 79 feet as the law requires now.
The board issued a report Nov. 7 after convening hearings in October.
Safety hearings were prompted by the 2008 sinking of the 92-foot cod boat Katmai off the Aleutian Islands of Alaska that killed seven of the 11 crew aboard, and the sinking of the 76-foot scallop boat Lady Mary, which sank about 65 miles southeast of Cape May, killing six of the seven crew members.
All of the fisherman aboard the Lady Mary lived in Cape May County. The sinking took the lives of Lady Mary owner Timothy Smith, 37; his brother Royal Smith Jr., 42; Bernie “Tarzon” Smith, 58, the uncle of the Smith brothers; Frankie Credle, 57, a cousin of the Smiths; Frank Reyes, 42; and Jorge Alberto Ramos Arteaga, 23.
Jose Luis Arias, 57, of Wildwood, was the sole survivor.
After hearings in Cape May, the Coast Guard concluded last year the Lady Mary took on water because an access hatch had been left open in rough weather. The board recommended training boat captains and crew on maintaining the stability of their craft.
Converting the Lady Mary from a shrimp trawler to a scalloper had required numerous design modifications.
“These actions showed a lack of understanding the importance stability plays in a safe fishing operation and the importance of watertight integrity, particularly in severe weather,” the board said.
The board found that many small changes to a fishing boat over time could have a bigger effect on its stability than a single major conversion. These changes can increase its total weight and affect its center of gravity, the board said.
The Katmai was carrying 120,000 pounds of cod, twice the maximum weight used for its stability report. The heavily laden boat got caught in a storm, took on water and sank in 25-foot seas and 80-mph winds while making a slow crawl back to port in Dutch Harbor.
The board determined that overloading of the Katmai decreased its stability, contributing to its sinking. The board noted that boats smaller than 79 feet sink at a higher rate than larger ones that are subject to stability tests.
“The NTSB believes that the Coast Guard has been remiss in not issuing the stability regulations for vessels 79 feet or less in length as promised in 1991,” the board said.
Commercial fishing was deemed the most hazardous occupation in the United States in each of the last four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But Jack Kemerer, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Advisory Committee, said new regulations are expected to improve the odds for people who make their living on the water.
His committee convened in November to discuss rules the Coast Guard adopted last year. Among them: boats operating in federal waters must have better lifeboats and maintain a safety logbook of drills and equipment maintenance.
The Coast Guard also requires dockside safety inspections every two years. The boat’s captain must pass new training programs ensuring competency in seamanship, navigation, stability, firefighting and survival.
Kemerer said the committee also discussed the safety board’s recommendations, including one requiring all commercial fishermen to wear flotation devices. About 30 percent of fishing fatalities take place when a fisherman falls overboard.
“Some individuals don’t want to wear anything extra, especially in warm weather,” Kemerer said. “Some owners and operators require anyone working on deck to wear some kind of flotation aid. It’s a company policy. People make do. It’s like a seatbelt. A lot of people don’t want to wear them.”
The board also suggested that boats have equipment to save someone who has fallen overboard.
“You have someone who is fatigued or starting to experience hypothermia, and they’re unresponsive. You have a 200-pound fisherman you’re trying to get back on the vessel. It’s not that easy,” Kemerer said.
Kemerer said several commercial fishing accidents in the late 1990s, including three boat sinkings off New Jersey in the span of a month, prompted a similar federal reaction to address safety concerns. Eleven fishermen died in those accidents off Ocean County.
“A task force was set up. They came up with recommendations and new initiatives to enhance safety and the (mortality) rates came down again,” he said. “I think it’s possible that fatality rate can drop. When some of these new requirements are implemented, it will have an impact on that.”
The Lady Mary lies in more than 200 feet of water.
Arias, the survivor, later told investigators he was awakened by Tim Smith to find the boat taking on water. Arias said he waded through the flooded boat, which was listing by 30 degrees and sitting still in the water, although he recalled seeing Royal Smith at the wheel and heard the engines running.
Arias told investigators the crew was panicked. He struggled to put on his survival suit and left the boat for the open waters. He was rescued several hours later.
Contact Michael Miller: