Fast Facts

To improve safety in commercial fishing, many boats are required to be built and maintained under rules set by organizations that certify them in a process called "classing." Another certification process, called "alternative-to-class," was introduced in 2016.

We examined costs and effectiveness of classing. Stakeholders agreed that classing increases costs, but there is limited data to quantify this or its effectiveness. They also said they were unclear about implementing the alternative approach.

We recommended that the Coast Guard, with others, gather reliable data and clarify the alternative approach.

Commercial Fishing Boat

Photo of a commercial fishing boat

Photo of a commercial fishing boat

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

The Coast Guard, the only military service within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), investigated 2,101 commercial fishing vessel accidents between 2006 and 2015 that occurred in federal waters; however, because there are no reliable data on the total number of commercial fishing vessels that are actively fishing, rates of accidents, injuries, and fatalities cannot be determined. Agencies, such as the Coast Guard, keep records of accidents, but without reliable data on active vessels, trend information cannot be determined. The Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service have separate efforts to collect data that could be used to develop an estimate of active commercial fishing vessels, but each agency is taking a different approach to do so. These and other agencies agreed that it is important to calculate rates to assess commercial fishing vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities. Establishing a mechanism—such as a working group—to coordinate efforts and collect reliable data on the number of active vessels and key characteristics, such as vessel age and length, would allow the agencies to do so in an efficient manner.

Commercial Fishing Vessel

Commercial Fishing Vessel

While data on the costs to design, construct, and maintain classed vessels are limited, vessel owners, builders, and classification societies agree that classification increases costs and told GAO that the perceived costs of classing may affect vessel owners' decisions to purchase new vessels to avoid classification requirements. However, they also agree that classification is one of many factors that contribute to safety.

The alternative-to-class approach is more flexible than classing—for example, in its use of marine surveyors to verify vessel construction. Industry stakeholders and GAO's analysis, however, identified numerous questions and uncertainties regarding implementation of the approach, including licensing requirements for naval engineers and architects. The Coast Guard has not issued regulations or guidance to address these issues on the alternative-to-class approach due, in part, to its ongoing efforts to issue regulations to implement safety-related legislation enacted in 2010 and 2012. However, without specific written procedures—either in the form of regulations or guidance—the Coast Guard cannot ensure consistent implementation of the alternative-to-class approach.

Why GAO Did This Study

Commercial fishing has one of the highest death rates of any industry in the United States. Fishing vessels that are at least 50 feet long and were built after 2013 are required by law to be built and maintained to rules developed by a classification society, a process known as classing. Congress created an alternative-to-class approach in 2016, allowing certain size vessels to be designed and built to equivalent standards in lieu of classing.

The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 included a provision for GAO to review the costs and benefits of classing commercial fishing vessels. This report assesses (1) known numbers and rates of commercial fishing vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities; (2) what is known about the costs, effects, and benefits of constructing and maintaining classed vessels; and (3) how the alternative-to-class approach compares with classing. GAO collected data on vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities; interviewed vessel owners, builders, classification societies, Coast Guard, and other agencies; and studied classing costs.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

Among GAO's recommendations, the Coast Guard and other agencies should form a working group to collect reliable data on the number of active fishing vessels. The Coast Guard should also issue regulations or guidance to address questions about the alternative-to-class approach. The agencies generally concurred with the recommendations, but DHS did not concur that the Coast Guard assess vessel accident rates. GAO revised this recommendation to allow the Coast Guard or another appropriate agency to do the assessment.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Coast Guard The Coast Guard should ensure that the data it collects during commercial fishing vessel incident investigations, including the fishery in which the commercial fishing vessel is involved, is accurately captured. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with our recommendation. As of July 2019, the Coast Guard has taken actions to ensure data collected during commercial fishing vessel incident investigations is accurately captured and has completed the process to develop additional data fields within the Coast Guard's Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) database to capture the fishery in which the commercial fishing vessel is involved. Coast Guard officials reported that marine casualty records in the MISLE database are reviewed weekly for quality and MISLE incident investigations are reviewed for accuracy and completeness before being submitted to the Coast Guard Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis.
United States Coast Guard The Coast Guard should form a working group with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine an efficient means to establish a reliable estimate of the population of commercial fishing vessels actively fishing, landing, and selling their catch; the fishery in which a vessel operates; and key vessel characteristics including, but not limited to, vessel age and length. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with our recommendation. As of December 2018, the Coast Guard, NIOSH and NMFS formed a working group and NMFS officials reported that a complete dataset of vessels, their characteristics and associated permits will be provided to the Coast Guard and NIOSH on an annual basis in response to this recommendation.
United States Coast Guard Once reliable data are available, the Coast Guard, or another agency identified by the working group, should assess the rates of commercial fishing vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities to determine whether certain factors--including vessel length and region of operation, among other things--affect these rates. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not concur with our recommendation that the Coast Guard assess the rates of commercial fishing vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities to determine whether certain factors-such as vessel length and region of operation-affect these rates. DHS officials stated that the Coast Guard has limited resources and capabilities to conduct such assessments and noted that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studies marine incidents to identify causal factors in fishing vessel casualties, which could more effectively determine casualty rates. The Coast Guard uses this information to update and develop commercial fishing vessel safety standards and policy, as appropriate. GAO agrees that NIOSH plays an important role in identifying commercial fishing fatalities and regional risk factors, but such assessments typically focus on fatalities in specific fisheries, and generally did not consider such factors as vessel length or whether the vessel has been classed. As of June 2021, Coast Guard officials stated the working group framework remains firmly in place to allow the Coast Guard and NIOSH to track and analyze marine incidents and recommend corrective actions. Although the Coast Guard provided evidence of analysis of some commercial fishing vessel data, it does not include the rates of commercial fishing vessel accidents, injuries, and fatalities or how certain factors, such as vessel length and region of operation, among other things, could affect these rates and thus does not meet the intent of our recommendation. This recommendation will remain open and we will continue to monitor.
United States Coast Guard The Coast Guard should issue regulations or guidance to clarify and implement the alternative-to-class approach. (Recommendation 4)
Open
The Department of Homeland Security concurred with our recommendation that the Coast Guard issue regulations or guidance to clarify and implement the alternative-to-class approach. The Coast Guard stated they had a comprehensive discussion with commercial fishing industry members in November 2018, clarifying the alternative-to-class approach as it relates to commercial fishing vessels including discussion topics such as understanding the language of 46 USC 4503 and State Licensed Naval Architect and Marine Engineers' scope of responsibilities when incorporating standards equivalent to those prescribed by a classification society. As of June 2021, Coast Guard officials stated they are studying the adequacy of the alternative-to-class approach and will consider additional guidance when the study concludes in 2026.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health NIOSH should form a working group with the Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine an efficient means to establish a reliable estimate of the population of commercial fishing vessels actively fishing, landing, and selling their catch; the fishery in which a vessel operates; and key vessel characteristics including, but not limited to, vessel age and length. (Recommendation 5)
Closed - Implemented
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) concurred with our recommendation. As of December 2018, NIOSH, the Coast Guard and NMFS formed a working group in response to this recommendation. NIOSH commercial fishing safety researchers assisted other working group members in developing a list of vessel-related parameters that would be useful to further characterize fishing fleets. Participant agencies agreed that NMFS Office of Science and Technology would take the lead on the data gathering.
National Marine Fisheries Service The National Marine Fisheries Service should form a working group with the Coast Guard and NIOSH to determine an efficient means to establish a reliable estimate of the population of commercial fishing vessels actively fishing, landing, and selling their catch; the fishery in which a vessel operates; and key vessel characteristics including, but not limited to, vessel age and length. (Recommendation 6)
Closed - Implemented
The Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) agreed with our recommendation. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) Office of Science and Technology took the lead in responding to this recommendation, forming a working group with representatives from NIOSH and the Coast Guard. In December 2018, NMFS personnel delivered the final dataset to the working group featuring a list of vessels that were active or likely active in federal fisheries in 2017. NMFS officials reported that a complete dataset of vessels, their characteristics and associated permits will be provided to the Coast Guard and NIOSH on an annual basis.

Full Report

GAO Contacts