Captain Dave Goethel has some Fishery Observer and liability information you should review. Please share it!


Beginning sometime this winter, here in the northeast observers switched from the safety checklist to the “pre-trip safety inspection”. Basically, instead of accepting a card signed by a previous observer good for three months, with all the expiration dates listed for the epirb and other equipment, they began fiddling with every piece of equipment even though you have a valid Coast Guard safety sticker. When I questioned NOAA Fisheries they responded that you have to have the sticker but they only accept it on the day it is issued. So now NOAA has decided that they are the safety police. Young people, with little or no practical boat experience, trained as biologists, armed with diagrams of flares and hydrostatic releases, know more than the US Coast Guard. If you do not comply, they threaten economic blackmail claiming they will tie your boat to the dock for refusing to let them fiddle with your equipment. This has lead to numerous confrontations as many of us have life rafts located in inaccessible areas mainly on pilothouse roofs. Our roofs are covered with sea gull excrement 8 months a year and ice, snow and frost the rest of the time. They are extremely slippery and the chances of sliding off or falling are high. After doing some research on the subject, I learned that observers are considered guests by a Supreme Court ruling and do not have to follow lawful orders given by a vessel captain. If they were seamen under the Jones act, they could be charged with mutiny. However, this does not relieve the vessel owner of liability. You must document the fact that you gave the observer a lawful order for their own safety which they refused to acknowledge.

I had a meeting May 13 with a number of NOAA personnel including the Regional Administrator to find a solution and received an email that they would have a proposal within two weeks. It has been two months and nothing has happened. Last week I had an observer three straight days. The first two days were uneventful with them accepting the card and the life raft certification issued by the raft manufacturer. However, the young lady on the third day insisted on accessing the roof. I had her read the statement which she refused to sign. She told me not to worry, the observer company had plenty of insurance if she fell. I printed her name, wrote a statement that she had read and understood the danger, signed the statement and had the crewmen sign as a witness. Ten minutes later there was a huge crash on the roof and I figured she had fallen. The crewman pulled his head up over the edge of the roof and witnessed the woman violently shaking the raft and its mounting bracket so much that the entire roof was moving. She claimed she was checking the hydrostatic release. This is the kind of stupidity we are faced with.

Anyone that has been sued knows that when someone gets hurt everyone remotely involved gets dragged in. If this is happening on my vessel it is happening elsewhere. For that reason I am releasing the statement I have written for all fishermen to use. It is not a legal document, but it will provide you with proof that you attempted to protect them from their own unsafe actions. Fishermen should customize the statement to their own vessels characteristics. I would also suggest if you encounter this issue you contact the Regional Administrator, Mike Pentony, and the head of the science center, Jon Hare and file a complaint. There phone numbers are on NOAA’s website. It also cannot hurt to call your Congressional people and inform them of this travesty. Remember you are responsible for their safety and the safety of your vessel and crew.

Fish safe,
David Goethel
F/V Ellen Diane