Improving Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

May 22–28 is National Safe Boating Week, calling to mind well known campaigns against boating while intoxicated, distracted operations, and promoting proper use of life jackets on watercraft. But the present NTSB Most Wanted List puts a special emphasis on a lesser-known issue: the safety of passenger vessels and commercial fishing vessels.

It’s critical to watch out for your own safety and that of your guests on board personal watercraft, but when you step aboard a passenger vessel or go to work on a fishing vessel, somebody else is responsible for the whole range of safety concerns, from having appropriate fire-detection devices to well-maintained lifesaving equipment. We’re working to ensure that marine operators have your safety in mind, in part, by asking the country’s marine transportation regulating authority, the US Coast Guard, to implement our safety recommendations.

Passenger Vessels

Passenger vessels range in size from small charter vessels, such as dive boats and amphibious passenger vessels (DUKW boats or “duck boats”) to large cruise ships operating in international waters. The number of passengers and crew on these types of vessels varies.

Fires can pose a catastrophic threat to passenger vessels, as we saw in the 2019 Conception dive boat accident off the coast of California, in which 34 people died. Our investigations have revealed that crew training and safety regulations for these vessels vary, increasing the risk to passengers and crew. We have investigated 74 fire-related marine accidents since 2010.

To prevent needless deaths and mitigate injuries, passenger vessels should:

  • have safety management systems,
  • use voyage data recorders, and
  • provide adequate fire-detection, extinguishing systems, and available emergency egress options.

Operators should ensure their crews have enhanced training that includes practicing fire drills and learning firefighting techniques. We also need to see existing requirements for roving patrols enforced to ensure passengers are being transported safely.

Additionally, amphibious passenger vehicle operators should instruct passengers that seat belts must not be worn while the vessel/vehicle is operated in the water. Each passenger should visually check to ensure they have unbuckled their belt when the vessel enters the water.

Commercial Fishing

The commercial fishing industry, which remains largely uninspected, is another marine sector of concern. Fishing consistently tops the list of most deadly occupations due, in large part, to challenging work environments, such as poor weather and rough waters. These conditions threaten vessel stability and integrity, which, as we’ve seen in our investigations, can lead to catastrophic results. More than 800 people have died on fishing vessels in the past two decades.

We need new standards to address—and periodically reassess—intact stability, subdivision, and watertight integrity in commercial fishing vessels up to 79 feet long. Many fishing crews aren’t trained in stability management techniques or emergency response, and we have found that many vessels do not have proper life-saving equipment, such as flotation devices and operational search-and-rescue locator devices.

Back on the Water

As more and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, many Americans are considering travel again, including on personal craft, passenger, and fishing vessels. The NTSB will continue to investigate accidents such as allisions, groundings, sinkings, and vessel fires in which people are injured or lose their lives, vessels are damaged or destroyed, or there is a threat to the environment. These cases are rare, and we hope to make them rarer, but as traffic on our waterways begins to return to pre-pandemic levels, the likelihood of an accident increases.

The dedicated men and women of the US Coast Guard work to improve safety on both passenger and fishing vessels by implementing recommendations that come out of our investigations and studies. We continue to urge the US Coast Guard to act on our passenger and fishing vessel recommendations to make these marine sectors as safe as possible for crews and passengers.

Learn more

Improve Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety

National Safe Boating Week

Fire Aboard Small Passenger Vessel Conception
Santa Barbara, CA | September 2019


Sinking of Amphibious Passenger Vessel Stretch Duck 7
Branson, MO | July 2018


Capsizing and sinking of fishing vessel Destination
George’s Island, AK | February 2017


Fire aboard Roll-on/Roll-off Passenger Vessel Caribbean Fantasy
Atlantic Ocean, 2 Miles Northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico | August 2016


Capsizing and sinking of fishing vessel Christopher’s Joy
Southwest Pass, LA | September 2014

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