Coast Guard: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Efforts

GAO-23-105289 Published: Nov 02, 2022. Publicly Released: Nov 02, 2022.
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Fast Facts

To improve safety in the extremely dangerous commercial fishing industry, Coast Guard examines fishing vessels' documents and safety equipment, and conducts outreach to fishers, among other efforts.

But, Coast Guard hasn't fully implemented 17 of 22 statutory requirements to improve commercial fishing vessel safety. For example, Coast Guard hasn't developed a training program for commercial fishers or re-established an advisory committee on industry safety issues. In addition, Coast Guard doesn't have a detailed plan to guide their efforts to fully implement the outstanding statutory requirements.

Our recommendations address this and more.

red and white commercial fishing vessel in water

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Coast Guard efforts to promote commercial fishing vessel safety include conducting dockside exams, engaging with industry, and collaborating with other federal agencies. A dockside exam includes a review of a vessel's documents and safety equipment. Vessels that successfully complete an exam receive a 2-year safety decal from the Coast Guard. In addition, the agency engages with industry through safety trainings and policy letters, among other efforts. The Coast Guard also collaborates with other federal agencies, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, by sharing accident data and supporting vessel safety research.

Commercial Fishing Vessels in Newport, Oregon

Commercial Fishing Vessels in Newport, Oregon

The Coast Guard fully implemented five of 22 key statutory requirements related to various aspects of commercial fishing vessel safety (e.g., equipment, training, exams) enacted from fiscal years 2011 through 2021. However, it has either partially or not implemented 17 requirements. One requirement that the Coast Guard does not intend to implement is to develop alternate safety standards for older fishing vessels, which account for almost 80 percent of fishing vessel losses. The Coast Guard stated it does not have the authority to address the requirement to develop alternate safety standards for older fishing vessels. However, based on GAO's review of the applicable statutory provisions, the Coast Guard does have the authority to implement this requirement. In June 2016, the Coast Guard issued a proposed rule intended to address nine of the other 16 outstanding requirements. However, as of August 2022, the rule had not been finalized, and the Coast Guard had no detailed plan for implementing these requirements. Developing and implementing alternate safety standards for older vessels and developing a plan with time frames for implementing the other 16 requirements would help to address the Coast Guard's statutory responsibilities and support efforts to prevent fishing vessel losses and related fatalities.

The Coast Guard has established strategic goals and performance goals for its commercial fishing vessel safety program. However, it has not fully incorporated other key performance management practices, such as establishing performance goals that fully address all aspects of its strategic goals, setting realistic targets for its performance goals, and using performance data to assess progress towards program goals. Fully incorporating such practices could help the Coast Guard better assess program performance and address any performance issues.

Why GAO Did This Study

Commercial fishing has one of the highest industry death rates in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since fiscal year 2011, multiple commercial fishing vessel safety requirements have been enacted. As the principal federal agency for ensuring marine safety, the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for implementing statutory requirements related to fishing vessel safety.

GAO reviewed the Coast Guard's commercial fishing vessel safety efforts as a follow-on to other GAO work to address a provision in statute. This report examines Coast Guard efforts to (1) improve commercial fishing vessel safety; (2) implement related key statutory requirements enacted from fiscal years 2011 through 2021; and (3) incorporate key performance assessment steps for its commercial fishing vessel safety program.

To address these objectives, GAO reviewed relevant laws, as well as Coast Guard documentation and data on its efforts to improve fishing vessel safety. GAO also observed vessel exams, and interviewed Coast Guard headquarters and field-based officials.

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Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations to the Coast Guard, including to implement alternate safety standards for older vessels, develop a plan with time frames to implement the other outstanding statutory requirements, and fully incorporate key performance management practices. DHS concurred with five of six recommendations. GAO maintains that the findings in the report support all of the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Fishing Vessel Safety Division, in coordination with the Office of Maritime Law Enforcement, clarifies and documents the agency's policy on the enforcement of the dockside exam requirement during at-sea boardings of commercial fishing vessels. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy develops and implements an alternate safety compliance program, as required by law. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy develops a plan with time frames and interim milestones to fully implement the other 16 outstanding statutory requirements for commercial fishing vessel safety, including issuing regulations. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Fishing Vessel Safety Division establishes performance goals for the commercial fishing vessel safety program that fully address all aspects of the program's strategic goals. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Fishing Vessel Safety Division sets realistic targets for the commercial fishing vessel safety program's performance goals. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should ensure that the Fishing Vessel Safety Division uses performance data to assess progress towards the commercial fishing vessel safety program's goals on a regular basis. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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