“A number of vessels in this fleet have sub-par safety and pollution records. During safety inspections, crews have failed emergency drills due to, in part, unqualified persons in key positions and language barriers due to a mixed, nearly entirely foreign crew.”

With those harsh words, the U.S. Coast Guard’s judge advocate general, Rear Adm. Steven Poulin, described the vessels that make up the U.S.-flagged South Pacific purse seine fleet in his report earlier this year to the American Bar Association, meeting in Chicago.

Nor did Poulin hold back when ascribing blame for this situation.

“Congress has authorized these vessels certain manning exemptions, permitting foreign persons to fill the chief engineer and mate positions, which are typically required to be filled by U.S. citizens,” he said. “In addition, the latest Coast Guard Authorization Act removed requirements for annual safety exams and mandated U.S. port calls for vessels opting to utilize the manning waiver. Given this and other waivers, the master may be the only U.S. citizen aboard many of these vessels.

“Despite these generous allowances, these vessels are often found in violation of the manning waivers with a ‘paper Captain’ (where the person actually in command of the vessel is a foreign citizen). This frustrating issue is exacerbated by minimal penalty amounts, which have proven insufficient to deter this behavior.”

A purse seiner at work off the coast of California.

A purse seiner at work off the coast of California.

Tom Clifton/Flickr.com

Enforcement of even these lax requirements, Poulin noted, was difficult: “manning, safety, and crew treatment concerns throughout the fleet continue to be an enforcement challenge due to constrained resources, vast operating areas, and broad Congressionally authorized manning waivers.”

The various associations and corporations having an interest in the purse seine fleet have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress in recent years.

For example, in 2010, the American Tunaboat Association paid Pike Associates $120,000 for lobbying on the Coast Guard Authorization Act – specifically, “officer requirements for distant water tuna vessels” – and on two other bills relating to international fisheries.

The ATA’s spending on lobbyists pales alongside that of the South Pacific Tuna Corporation, which controls 14 of the 38 active vessels in the so-called distant water tuna fleet (DWTF). From 2008 to the first quarter of 2015, SPTC spent $235,000 on lobbying expenses – most of it in relation, again, to “manning requirements for U.S. tuna purse seine fishing vessels,” a recurring provision in the Coast Guard authorization bills. (The figures come from the website “OpenSecrets,” which compiles reports filed by lobbyists with the U.S. Senate.)

Both ATA and SPTC chose Jeffrey Pike as their lobbyist. Pike, who was chief of staff for the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee from 1993 to 1994, began lobbying for the firm of Sher & Blackwell in 1998. In 2006, he briefly advocated for the U.S. Tuna Foundation. In 2009, he left Sher & Blackwell to form his own firm, Pike Associates.

The Majestic Blue

Possibly the perfect storm of all the exemptions granted to the U.S. purse seine fleet occurred in June 2010, with the sinking of the Majestic Blue, one of the U.S.-flagged tuna purse seiners enjoying all the privileges afforded by the U.S. Tuna Treaty.

Writer Kalee Thompson has described the events leading up to the sinking for the online publication “Matter” in her article “Mutiny on the Majestic Blue.” Based in large part on the U.S. Coast Guard’s investigation into the sinking and on court records and interviews, what emerges is a horrifying picture of a captain in name only, unable to communicate with his crew and virtually held hostage by a Korean fishing master hired by Dongwon, the fifth-largest fishing conglomerate in the world and owner of StarKist, among many other holdings.

Graphic showing how a purse seine vessel deploys its nets.

Graphic showing how a purse seine vessel deploys its nets.


To be included in the U.S. purse seine fleet in the South Pacific, a vessel must be majority-owned by U.S. citizens. In the case of the Majestic Blue and Pacific Breeze, the other Dongwon-affiliated purse seiner in the U.S. fleet, the nominal owner was a Delaware limited liability company, whose principals were two nieces of Dongwon chairman J.C. Kim.

The Pacific Breeze continues to be included in the U.S. purse seine fleet.

According to its website, mbpbab.com, “Our company is 100% owned by United States Citizens … Our company is opened [sic] minded relative to fishery related issues and welcome [sic] any suggestions one may have.”

The Coast Guard investigated the sinking, releasing its report with several recommendations in 2013.

The first was to require indicator lights on the bridge for each watertight door belowdecks. Captain J.C. Burton, director of inspections and compliance, rejected this, noting that commercial fishing vessels are not required to have watertight doors, except in special cases.

The Majestic Blue in Guam

The Majestic Blue in Guam

U.S. Coast Guard

Second, because the crew of the Majestic Blue was made up of so many different nationalities, the captain’s instructions could not be understood. The investigation recommended that “all emergency instructions should be in a common language of the crew.”

Burton disagreed. Coast Guard regulations already required crews to undergo emergency drills at least once a month.

“While having those instructions in a common language of the crew, if there is one, or in the various languages of the crew would help to ensure their understanding, I believe the issue can be effectively addressed by ensuring compliance with the existing requirements for instruction, drills, and safety orientation.”

The investigators recommended that the Coast Guard change its regulations so that large fishing vessels would have to have at least 75 percent of the crew throughout the vessel understand any order spoken by the officers – a requirement for most other vessels licensed by the Coast Guard.

Burton did not agree. “The exemption … is a direct implementation of an exemption granted by Congress … As such, the Coast Guard cannot remove the exemption without a change to the federal statute enacted by Congress.”

Recommendation four was that the Coast Guard “should seek legislative authority and additional resources to support a mandatory annual inspection for commercial fishing vessels to include a dry-dock examination.”

Burton concurred with the intent of the recommendation and went on to note that the Coast Guard had submitted proposals “Legislative Change Proposals (LCPs) for such authority numerous times” – always, however, without success.

At present, vessels in the tuna fleet need to undergo Coast Guard inspection (not including dry dock) just once every five years.

For Further reading

  • “Flogging and Mutiny in the 21st Century,” at gcaptain.com.
  • “Mutiny on the Majestic Blue,” at medium.com
  • “Report of Investigation: Sinking of the F/V Majestic Blue…,” available at the U.S. Coast Guard website, uscg.mil

Reprinted with permission from the current issue of Environment Hawaii, a non-profit news publication. The entire issue, as well as more than 20 years of past issues, is available free to Environment Hawaii subscribers at www.environment-hawaii.org. Non-subscribers must pay $10 for a two-day pass.

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