Coroners Findings on Loss of Fishing Vessel ‘Returner’

The WA Coroners Court recently handed down its findings into the loss of the fishing vessel Returner in the Pilbara in July 2015 together with the three crew onboard.

The Returner was a refurbished prawn trawler (formerly the Freda Jess) operating in the Dampier/Port Hedland region. After receiving clearance from the marine safety authorities after the refurbishment, the vessel travelled to the Pilbara and worked the fishing grounds for several weeks until it failed to reach port as scheduled on 15th July 2015.

The last contact with the vessel was at 2am on 11th July 2015. The inquest canvassed the reasons why the Returner sank, focusing upon the refurbishment of the vessel by skipper Mr Murray Turner, as well as the possible contributing environmental factors. There was evidence to the Coroner that the overall effect of these extensive modifications made the vessel less stable in the water. There was also evidence that the vessel was small for its purpose and cluttered, making it difficult to move about on the deck.

The refurbishment commenced without notifying the Department of Transport WA (DoT), contrary to the DoT procedure, and did not, on the evidence, engage a naval architect or consult a shipwright in regard to the works. The owner appeared to have relied upon his own judgment as to what was required albeit with an understanding that the vessel would also undergo some form of survey through the DoT when the works were completed.

Ballast was removed from the vessel but the evidence was that this fact was not passed on to the authorities at the time of formal survey.

The vessel underwent two survey processes – one for the insurance company and one by DoT under the delegation of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). The Coroner noted as significant, the fact that if the vessel had been treated as a ‘new vessel’, then one part of the requirements of a renewal survey is for a lightship verification (stability test) to be undertaken via draft or weight check, re-incline or roll period test, as appropriate for the vessel. However, because it was a ‘grandfathered’ vessel it did not require lightship verification to be performed.

The Coroner noted that an existing vessel can be considered a ‘new vessel’ if authorities consider that the vessel changes its operations, is significantly modified and seeks to move its geographic area of operation. Any recent modifications to a vessel should be advised by the owner of the vessel by lodging notification of the modifications with the DoT. Evidence highlighted that the removal of the ballast was not included as a modification by the owner of the Returner. The Coroner also noted that it appeared more likely than not that the owner was not truthful about the fuel tanks being full at the time the surveyor conducted his vessel freeboard check. The
DoT surveyor treated the Returner as an ‘existing vessel’ for survey renewal purposes and no stability test was ordered.

The inquest was advised that the cost of an incline test was estimated to be in the vicinity of at least $8,000 – $10,000 for a vessel like the Returner, and if it failed the test there would likely be costs incurred to rectify the deficiencies. The surveyor accepted that he could have done more to verify the works that had been disclosed, but there was nothing that raised his suspicions at the time to suggest he was not being truthfully told the full extent of works being done.

Modelling carried out after the salvage of the vessel demonstrated that the modifications that had been made to the vessel had dramatically, and detrimentally, altered its stability. It was stated that the Returner was, on average, 35% more unstable at the time that it sank than in its original configuration. Wind and wave data taken on the night of the vessel loss showed conditions were quite benign up to midnight and then there was a rapid increase in wind speed between 12.30 am and 1.30 am and a corresponding spike in wave height recorded at 1.42 am with a maximum at 2.7m.

The freeing port cut outs on the Returner were found to have been covered by stiff rubber flaps that were not capable of opening to allow the unrestricted flow of water from the weather deck.

Questions were also raised as to why the Department of Fisheries had not raised the alarm when they lost contact with the Returner through their vessel monitoring system.

The findings recommendations were:

• AMSA should include mandatory requirements all vessels to carry float free EPIRBs that deploy automatically when immersed in water
• AMSA and Worksafe WA should promote and encourage the wearing of life jackets while working on commercial fishing vessels
• AMSA commence transition to the removal of the ‘grandfathering’ policy of safety standards for existing vessels. Compliance with current standards in regard to vessel operations and safety equipment should be given priority
• AMSA ensure accredited surveyors are reminded of the importance of independently verifying key information when assessing a vessel’s stability.
• Department of Fisheries to guide staff managing the Vessel Monitoring System as an important secondary safety aspect to prioritise communicating with a vessel that has issued an LAC alert that cannot be resolved
• Where Fisheries VMS staff are unsuccessful in contacting the vessel or ascertaining its whereabouts within 4 hours of they should notify Water Police
• Fisheries should consider ways in which the VMS can be monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and if a practical means can be found, they should be resourced accordingly.

The summary and full report can be found at: arter_and_murray_allan_turner_and_chad_alan_fairley.aspx