Missing fishermen: Probe found vessel was not inspected for seaworthiness, crew had no safety training

…cannot continue “business as usual” – Edghill
…MARAD has only 6 marine surveyors to monitor over 2,000 vessels

Public Works Minister Juan Edghill on Thursday stressed that the fishing industry cannot continue to operate business as per usual after a report from the high-level Board of Inquiry (BoI) into the incident involving a Nobel House vessel that in the Atlantic Ocean and resulted in three fishermen going missing, highlighted some damning revelations.

MARAD’s Captain John Flores handing over the BOI report to Public Works Minister Juan Edghill on Thursday as MARAD Director General Stephen Thomas looks on

On the morning of February 19, a fishing trawler – World Friend 307, which is owned by Noble House Seafoods Limited, begun taking water and capsized before sinking in the Atlantic Ocean some 18 miles off of the Mahaicony Coast. Three of the four crew members – the 44-year-old captain, Harold Damon of Lot 4 Water Street, Agricola, Greater Georgetown; 46-year-old Winston Sam of Lot 32 Public Road, McDoom, Greater Georgetown; and 78-year-old Ronald Burton of Lot 23 Water Street, Agricola have all been missing since.
The fourth crew member, Vincent Dazzell, survived the tragedy and was rescued by another fishing boat and brought to shore on Saturday afternoon. Before coming to shore, however, he said they spent some three hours exploring the area in search of the three missing fishermen but to no avail.
He had related that the Captain Damon had informed Nobel House that morning that the vessel was taking in water moments before it sank. However, this was not reported to the relevant authorities until later that day when Dazzell returned to shore and turned up at the company.
Moreover, the frustrating family members of the three missing fishermen have been complaining bitterly about the lack of information from the Novel House, which also failed to inform them about the incident initially.
Nevertheless, the Public Works Ministry had set up a BOI to look into the circumstances of the incident and approximately one month later, that report was handed over to Minister Edghill on Thursday by Captain John Flores, who headed the probe.
Upon receipt of the report, Edghill posited that “…culpability or lack of culpability must be established; it must not be hidden anywhere.”
He added that actions are necessary to ensure that there is not a repeat of this incident or to minimize the possibility of such incidents.
“I would want to clearly say as a result of this incident, there can be no guessing that it will not be business as usual as it relates to the regulatory framework in which the fishing industry operates in Guyana, and it cannot be business as usual as it relates to the use of waterways and what we do and how we do it. Safety and the establishment of strong minimum standards to ensure safety and capacity to respond and the establishment of protocols must be clearly defined,” he stated.
Among the findings of the report is that while Nobel House received the call early in the morning that the boat was taking in water, the Maritime Administration (MARAD) nor the Light House were not notified until about nine hours later. This, the Minister noted, significantly delayed the rescue response mechanism which did not go into gear until 24 hours after the incident would have happened.
“By the time, they received word was night fall and mobilising into action was at the break of day, the next day,” he stated.

Not issued by MARAD
The report also unearthed that the captain’s licence was not issued by MARAD – something that was previously disclosed. In fact, Edghill noted that there is no record at MARAD that the Captain was ever licensed to operate such vessels and this warrants the examination of the licensing system to ascertain whether there are rogue elements issue licences or fake licenses are being created outside the Administration.
Additionally, it was found too that neither the captain nor the crew had any certification or training in terms of safety and responding to emergencies.
“I know the argument can be made that these are men that go out there all the time, what kind of training they need [because] they have the experience but when something happens is when everybody wake up,” the Public Works Minister stressed.
According to Edghill, there need now to look at ways to safeguard the lives and welfare of those persons who go out to ply “dangerous waters.”
In fact, it was revealed during Thursday’s press conference following the handing over of the report that inspections at Nobel House unearthed two other captains who are not properly licensed to operate fishing trawlers.
The BOI also raised concerns about the physical condition of the vessel that went down. It was not that while the trawler was certified by MARAD and had gone into drydock, there was no evidence or record to show that the vessel had been examined by a certified inspector before heading out to sea – something that is mandatory in order to determine its “seaworthiness.”
“So, a boat that has disappeared and gone down, we don’t know – because there is no record to show if this boat was adequately inspected by a competent marine surveyor, deficiencies were found or not found, corrective actions were taken or not taken,” he stated.
Further, the company could not prove that they have suitably qualified personnel internally to conduct such inspections on the vessels before they head out to sea.
Edghill asserted that, “The science of things must be utilised for the safety and wellbeing for all. I am determined that it cannot be business as usual. Lessons learnt must be on our minds… I hope we could list those lessons learnt and strengthened the whole system.”

AG advice
Moreover, the Public Works Minister related that after pursuing the report, he will engage the Attorney General, Anil Nandlall SC, to determine the way forward.

While the law stipulates penalties for operating without licences, there was no indication that the two other captains at Nobel House would be penalized. Regarding the fake licence of the missing captain, Edghill said it could be a case where the company might not have been aware of the unauthenticity of the document.
Nevertheless, Captain Flores, who is responsible for Safety at MARAD, disclosed that they are currently scrutinizing the list of operators at Nobel House to ensure that they are properly documented to operate in the fishing industry. He added that similar exercises would be undertaken at other fishing companies.
It was disclosed that there are currently some 1,800 artisan (small) fishing vessels and about 87 trawlers that operate in Guyana’s waters, which accounts for approximately 10,000 operators.
Although Minister Edghill has ordered MARAD to enhance its monitoring of operators within the fishing industry both big and small, the Administration presently has about six certified marine surveyors to conduct these inspections across the country.
To this end, Director General of MARAD, Stephen Thomas, indicated that plans are in place to increase this capacity to strengthen its monitoring activities of the fishing industry and its operators.
In fact, the BOI was also instructed by the Public Works Minister to examine MARAD systems and make appropriate recommendations to improve its performance.
“This is not a small matter. So, things that are overlooked before, we have to look into now and things that were taken for granted before, we have to look into it now,” Edghill stated.
In addition to MARAD’s Captain Flores, the BOI comprised Yurlander Hughes of the Transport and Harbour Department, Ronald Charles of the Ministry of Public Works, Rawle Williams of the Guyana Defence Force Coast Guard, Ewart Wray of the Guyana Police Force Maritime Unit, Dwayne Vyphius who is an Occupational Safety and Health Officer at the Labour Ministry, and Denzil Roberts who is the Head of the Department of Fisheries at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Meanwhile, only earlier this week, it was announced by Edghill that the search for the three fishermen has been suspended. (G8)