Commercial Fishing Vessels:

More Information Needed to Improve Classification Implementation

GAO-18-16: Published: Dec 14, 2017. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2017.

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Timothy J. DiNapoli
(202) 512-4841
dinapolit@gao.gov

 

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To improve safety in commercial fishing, many boats are required to be built and maintained under rules set by organizations that certify them in a process called "classing." Another certification process, called "alternative-to-class," was introduced in 2016.

We examined costs and effectiveness of classing. Stakeholders agreed that classing increases costs, but there is limited data to quantify this or its effectiveness. They also said they were unclear about implementing the alternative approach.

We recommended that the Coast Guard, with others, gather reliable data and clarify the alternative approach.

Commercial Fishing Boat

Photo of a commercial fishing boat

Photo of a commercial fishing boat

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Timothy J. DiNapoli
(202) 512-4841
dinapolit@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Coast Guard, the only military service within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), investigated 2,101 commercial fishing vessel accidents between 2006 and 2015 that occurred in federal waters; however, because there are no reliable data on the total number of commercial fishing vessels that are actively fishing, rates of accidents, injuries, and fatalities cannot be determined. Agencies, such as the Coast Guard, keep records of accidents, but without reliable data on active vessels, trend information cannot be determined. The Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service have separate efforts to collect data that could be used to develop an estimate of active commercial fishing vessels, but each agency is taking a different approach to do so. These and other agencies agreed that it is important to calculate rates to assess commercial fishing vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities. Establishing a mechanism—such as a working group—to coordinate efforts and collect reliable data on the number of active vessels and key characteristics, such as vessel age and length, would allow the agencies to do so in an efficient manner.

Commercial Fishing Vessel

Commercial Fishing Vessel

While data on the costs to design, construct, and maintain classed vessels are limited, vessel owners, builders, and classification societies agree that classification increases costs and told GAO that the perceived costs of classing may affect vessel owners' decisions to purchase new vessels to avoid classification requirements. However, they also agree that classification is one of many factors that contribute to safety.

The alternative-to-class approach is more flexible than classing—for example, in its use of marine surveyors to verify vessel construction. Industry stakeholders and GAO's analysis, however, identified numerous questions and uncertainties regarding implementation of the approach, including licensing requirements for naval engineers and architects. The Coast Guard has not issued regulations or guidance to address these issues on the alternative-to-class approach due, in part, to its ongoing efforts to issue regulations to implement safety-related legislation enacted in 2010 and 2012. However, without specific written procedures—either in the form of regulations or guidance—the Coast Guard cannot ensure consistent implementation of the alternative-to-class approach.

Why GAO Did This Study

Commercial fishing has one of the highest death rates of any industry in the United States. Fishing vessels that are at least 50 feet long and were built after 2013 are required by law to be built and maintained to rules developed by a classification society, a process known as classing. Congress created an alternative-to-class approach in 2016, allowing certain size vessels to be designed and built to equivalent standards in lieu of classing.

The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 included a provision for GAO to review the costs and benefits of classing commercial fishing vessels. This report assesses (1) known numbers and rates of commercial fishing vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities; (2) what is known about the costs, effects, and benefits of constructing and maintaining classed vessels; and (3) how the alternative-to-class approach compares with classing. GAO collected data on vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities; interviewed vessel owners, builders, classification societies, Coast Guard, and other agencies; and studied classing costs.

What GAO Recommends

Among GAO's recommendations, the Coast Guard and other agencies should form a working group to collect reliable data on the number of active fishing vessels. The Coast Guard should also issue regulations or guidance to address questions about the alternative-to-class approach. The agencies generally concurred with the recommendations, but DHS did not concur that the Coast Guard assess vessel accident rates. GAO revised this recommendation to allow the Coast Guard or another appropriate agency to do the assessment.

For more information, contact Timothy J. DiNapoli at (202) 512-4841 or dinapolit@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with our recommendation and stated that the Coast Guard plans to reemphasize collecting fisheries data as part of current/future Coast Guard Investigation Officer training programs, qualification requirements, and refresher courses as well as recommending additional data fields within the Coast Guard's Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) database. DHS estimated the completion date to be September 30, 2019.

    Recommendation: The Coast Guard should ensure that the data it collects during commercial fishing vessel incident investigations, including the fishery in which the commercial fishing vessel is involved, is accurately captured. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with our recommendation but stated that regional fisheries management councils would be better suited for this task since the Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) do not have access to information about the full commercial fishing population. DHS officials recommend that the regional fisheries management councils coordinate with the individual states for data collection and share that information with the Coast Guard and NMFS. This possibility will be part of discussions at the next annual meeting of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee in June 2018, after which decisions will be made concerning the best path forward. DHS estimated the completion date to be September 30, 2018.

    Recommendation: The Coast Guard should form a working group with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine an efficient means to establish a reliable estimate of the population of commercial fishing vessels actively fishing, landing, and selling their catch; the fishery in which a vessel operates; and key vessel characteristics including, but not limited to, vessel age and length. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not concur with our recommendation that the Coast Guard assess the rates of commercial fishing vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities to determine whether certain factors-such as vessel length and region of operation-affect these rates. DHS officials stated that the Coast Guard has limited resources and capabilities to conduct such assessments and noted that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studies marine incidents to identify causal factors in fishing vessel casualties, which could more effectively determine casualty rates. The Coast Guard uses this information to update and develop commercial fishing vessel safety standards and policy, as appropriate. GAO agrees that NIOSH plays an important role in identifying commercial fishing fatalities and regional risk factors, but such assessments typically focus on fatalities in specific fisheries, and generally did not consider such factors as vessel length or whether the vessel has been classed. This recommendation will remain open pending a decision by the working group on the appropriate agency to conduct these assessments.

    Recommendation: Once reliable data are available, the Coast Guard, or another agency identified by the working group, should assess the rates of commercial fishing vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities to determine whether certain factors--including vessel length and region of operation, among other things--affect these rates. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2017, the Department of Homeland Security concurred with our recommendation and stated the Coast Guard is in the process of developing a more formal policy on best practices and expectations for the commercial fishing vessel industry and implementing guidelines consistent with the intent of 46 USC 4503. DHS estimated the completion date to be December 31, 2018.

    Recommendation: The Coast Guard should issue regulations or guidance to clarify and implement the alternative-to-class approach. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concurred with our recommendation. As of February 2018, HHS officials stated that no action has been taken and that staff involved with commercial fishing vessel safety research will represent NIOSH in a collaborative working group with the Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service and NIOSH will assist in identifying ways to establish comprehensive vessel counts for the country, which could involve engaging state agencies.

    Recommendation: NIOSH should form a working group with the Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine an efficient means to establish a reliable estimate of the population of commercial fishing vessels actively fishing, landing, and selling their catch; the fishery in which a vessel operates; and key vessel characteristics including, but not limited to, vessel age and length. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed with our recommendation. As of February 2018, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) stated it will work with the Coast Guard and NIOSH in forming a working group. NMFS activities include coordinating with the Coast Guard, NIOSH, Fisheries Information Networks and the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics program to identify actively fishing, federally permitted vessels and the permits they hold. State registered vessels without federal permits that operate in Federal waters will also be included to the extent possible. The resulting dataset will be cross-referenced with Coast Guard databases to determine the specific vessel characteristics (age, length, etc.) that NIOSH identifies as useful for future analysis. This project is expected to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2018.

    Recommendation: The National Marine Fisheries Service should form a working group with the Coast Guard and NIOSH to determine an efficient means to establish a reliable estimate of the population of commercial fishing vessels actively fishing, landing, and selling their catch; the fishery in which a vessel operates; and key vessel characteristics including, but not limited to, vessel age and length. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: National Marine Fisheries Service

 

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