Mon | Sep 20, 2021

Editorial | Audit vessels operating in Jamaica

Published:Thursday | July 15, 2021 | 8:18 AM

MAYBE BECAUSE its entire crew was Honduran, the disappearance last week of the fishing vessel, Fallen Star, appears to have evoked little emotion among Jamaicans.

Yet, the loss of the vessel’s 15 hands, if, indeed, there are no survivors, would represent, perhaps, the island’s worst seafaring incident in nearly 60 years, since the Snowboy tragedy of 1963. Forty men, 39 Jamaicans and their Australian captain, went down with Snowboy in the seas in the vicinity of the Pedro Banks, a series of Jamaican-owned cays off the island’s southwest coast.

While this newspaper does not suggest that the Fallen Star was not in full compliance with Jamaican and global safety protocols for vessels of its class, its disappearance must be thoroughly and transparently investigated – as would be expected in any such incident – by the Maritime Authority of Jamaica (MAJ), which has oversight for such matters. Further, the MAJ should conduct a safety and compliance audit of all vessels operating in Jamaica’s waters, to assure the public that they meet regulatory standards.

This is not a new suggestion by The Gleaner. It is an echo of the call we made on the first day of 2019, following the Christmastime tragedy when two women drowned on their way to an excursion at Lime Cay, near Port Royal, when the fishing skiff, being used as a water taxi, got into trouble in rough seas. It turned out that the boat did not have sufficient safety gear, including life vests, for its 13 passengers.

LITTLE KNOWN ABOUT SUNKEN VESSEL

Relatively little is known, so far, about the circumstances aboard the Fallen Star, a 90-foot steel vessel, or of the men who crewed it before it went missing, except that it was last heard from on the evening of July 6. Three days later, debris fields were found in areas where you would expect to find litter from a vessel that sank in the region where Fallen Star was last detected. Laden with lobster pots, the boat, operated by Rainforest Seafoods, was on its way back to Jamaican waters, from post-season refurbishing in Honduras, for the new lobster season.

Fifty-eight years ago, the Snowboy (an old wooden vessel that had brought anti-Castro Cuban refugees to Jamaica before its local acquisition by Jamaican interests) left Kingston on July 1 for the Pedro Cays laden with fishing gear, food and other supplies for fishermen on the banks. The trip was expected to take eight hours and the vessel was last heard from four hours into the sail. However, the fact that it was lost only came to public attention on July 5, through this newspaper’s report of the likely tragedy.

Many people claimed that the Snowboy was overladen, and some also questioned its seaworthiness. The issues raised questions about the safety of fishing vessels and other boats operating in Jamaica, concerns that were still relevant more than half a century later in the December 27, 2018 incident involving the Geraldine, the fishing skiff transporting passengers to the cays near Port Royal.

OPERATING ILLEGALLY

Not only was the boat not licensed to carry passengers, but had more people than it was allowed as a fishing vessel. Additionally, its certification was out of date, which its captain, Hubert Dowie, said was not renewed because he could not afford the J$50,000 fee.

Mr Dowie was charged and convicted of four counts under the Harbours Act, including that his boat was not registered and that it was not authorised to transport passengers. He was fined a total of J$400 – J$100 on each charge – as Parish Judge Vaughn Smith explained during his March 2019 rule that that was the maximum allowed under the law.

It is not our sense that these laws, and the fines that go with them, have been updated since that incident. Neither, we believe, has an audit been done of the vessels fishing or otherwise operating in Jamaican waters. Large and exposed companies like Rainforest may be sensitive to the regulations and feel compelled to operate in accordance with them. Which, with respect to the Fallen Star, will be determined by the investigation.

But for many small and informal fishers and other boat operators, cutting corners and cutting costs may seem preferable to following the rules. But in times of crises, as that incident with the Geraldine highlighted, that can be deadly business.