Mutiny on the Majestic Blue
A captain held captive by his own crew. A boat flying the U.S. flag but violating every American law. Welcome to the big, bad world of distant water tuna fishing.
Captain wanted. No experience necessary. Doug Pine was on vacation on Maui in June 2009 when he saw the ad online. Pine, then 48, had been out of work for months; the economic downturn had taken a big bite out of maritime work. Experience, though, was one thing he had plenty of. In a 30-year career, mostly working out of Seattle, he’d captained a range of vessels: whale-watching boats in Hawaii, offshore supply ships in the Gulf of Mexico, tugboats in Washington State. But this job posting was unlike anything he’d ever seen.
The ad described a gig as master of a Western Pacific tuna fishing boat, an American ship with a crew of 24 men. The vessel was a purse seiner, a steel-hulled fishing boat that used a gigantic rectangular net that closed like a drawstring purse to catch tuna for StarKist, America’s most popular tuna brand. He sent an email.
Less than 15 minutes later he had a response. It didn’t come from the address listed, but from someone at a Korean company called Dongwon. “When can you be here?” the email asked.
Don’t you want to know anything about me? Don’t you want to interview me? Pine wondered.
But the only questions the company had were if his license and certificates were up to date, and when could he start.
Less than two weeks later Pine landed in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. He’d agreed to a 90-day contract with pay of $9,400 a month. If he returned for a second hitch after a three-month break, he’d get half pay for the months off — what the company referred to as a “loyalty bonus.”
Pine explored the island as he waited for the boat to come into port. The tropical weather was perfect, but Pine was struck by the vast piles of disintegrating water bottles and assorted plastic detritus that littered the shore.
After several days, the ship arrived. The Majestic Blue was an older boat, almost 200 feet long, the hull painted a deep blue and a massive net bundled at the stern. The outgoing captain gave Pine a quick tour. He was shown to his cabin, where he dropped his duffle, backpack, and guitar. The space was tiny and dingy. The toilet didn’t flush properly. The shower was just a cutoff hose. The whole ship seemed trashed, except for the fishing gear, which looked brand-new.
Pine was introduced to the crew — a mix of Korean, Indonesian, Filipino, and Vietnamese men. He was the only American on board. Among his charges was the fishing master, a Korean named Kyong Su Kim. Kim was about 5-foot-8, in his 30s, clean-shaven and muscular with deeply bronzed skin. Despite the heat, he wore a lightweight windbreaker with “Dongwon” printed on it. Pine noticed that no one called Kim by his name; they just referred to him as “fishing master.” Kim, Pine soon learned, had been captain of the ship until 15 months before, when it had been rechristened under the American flag.
As soon as the Majestic Blue was underway, Pine went down to the belly of the boat. He immediately noticed more problems. The watertight hatches to the engine and steering rooms were tied open, an outrageous violation of good marine practice and a sign of complacency on the part of the crew, he thought. He started crawling through the compartments, familiarizing himself with the layout of the engine room and the plant and the freezers. He wanted to look at them, touch them, trace the pipes and figure out what was where. As far as he could tell, no one who knew the systems spoke English. He’d figure them out for himself.
Pine was also eager to get to know the ship’s navigation systems and controls. But it was quickly made clear that he wasn’t expected to touch a thing in the wheelhouse. Every switch on the bridge was marked in Korean. The logs were in Korean; the computers had Korean keyboards; the wheelhouse computer was password-protected, and the Korean officers refused to give him the password. Pine couldn’t even turn the navigation lights on and off; he couldn’t tell which ones they were.
Pine was in the wheelhouse in front of the ship’s navigation radar one night less than a week into the trip. It was late, pitch-black outside, but the screen wasn’t tuned properly to look for traffic. Pine — who in his spare time taught classes in navigation technology at Seattle’s Pacific Maritime Institute — set out to clean it up. As soon as he started fiddling with the settings the fishing master rushed over and gave Pine a hard shove out of the way. “Do not touch!” he yelled. Pine was stunned. I’m the captain, I can do whatever I want to with the radar! But it was clear he was outnumbered, and that the culture of this ship — his ship — was against him. “It was like an alternative reality,” he recalls. “I’m captain, but I’m powerless.”
Before he set foot on the Majestic Blue, Pine was like most of us: He had canned tuna in his kitchen cabinet, and the last time he’d given much thought to where it came from was decades ago, when the industry moved to dolphin-friendly tuna. That was sparked by an incident in 1988, when images of net-snared dolphins being killed were captured on video by an undercover environmental activist who had posed as a ship’s cook. Video of the slaughter flashed on television screens around the globe. Dolphin safe labels appeared on cans. The world moved on, and so did the fishing industry.
The dolphin scandal was centered along the Pacific coast of Central America; by the 1990s tuna companies were following the fish thousands of miles west, to the waters around a dozen Western Pacific island nations — where they would remain largely out of sight.
Even before the migration, mom-and-pop companies — most out of San Diego, which had long been the capital of American tuna fishing — were going under. American-flagged boats are normally required to be built in the U.S., be 75 percent American-owned, and employ American officers and a crew that is at least three-quarters U.S. citizens. Those requirements, plus expanding U.S. environmental regulations, made it increasingly difficult for the small players to compete with less-regulated foreign companies. Between the 1970s and 1990s, many San Diego ships were reflagged under foreign nations, and the American tuna fleet dwindled.
Then, in 2006, a series of startling exemptions pushed by big-tuna lobbyists were tucked into the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act with the aid of a powerful San Diego congressman named Duncan Hunter. As a result, every boat in the “distant water tuna fleet,” as the Western Pacific tuna boats are collectively known, now requires only a single American officer on board: the captain. There are no longer any requirements to hire Americans as crew, and the ships can have up to 49 percent foreign ownership. The U.S. distant water tuna fleet quickly increased from 11 ships to 40. American tuna was effectively saved by being outsourced.
As Doug Pine discovered, however, the result is a rogue fleet. It uses the cover of the American flag to benefit from an exclusive treaty — supported by an annual $20 million U.S. taxpayer dollars — that allows the fishing of the tuna-rich waters of impoverished South Pacific island nations, while shirking environmental and labor laws. Of the 40 boats in the distant water tuna fleet, half employ “paper captains” like Doug Pine — masters who usually cannot communicate with their crew, never mind lead it. Poor communication and chain-of-command issues have been linked with multiple crew deaths. A dozen distant water ships have been cited and fined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for significant environmental violations in the past few years, including for setting nets on whales, a gross violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Like the Majestic Blue, all of the distant water tuna boats are purse seiners, whose nets entrap an excessive amount of bycatch along with the intended prey. Built in 1972, the Majestic Blue was the first ship in the Western Pacific tuna fleet of Dongwon, a powerful Korean conglomerate that acquired StarKist from Del Monte Foods for $359 million in 2008 (Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea are also now owned by foreign companies).
That same year, the boat, originally known as the Costa de Marfil, was rechristened Majestic Blue and reflagged as an American ship under the ownership of an LLC called Majestic Blue Fisheries. A sister Dongwon ship, once called the Eastern Kim, was renamed the Pacific Breeze and established under Pacific Breeze, LLC, at the same time. Though none of the tuna vessels ever left the Western Pacific, their hailing port was listed as Wilmington, Delaware. The owners of both boats? Joyce Jungmi Kim and Jayne Songmi Kim, the nieces of longtime Dongwon chairman Jae-chul “JC” Kim. By their own admission, the Kim sisters had no experience running a fishing company. They didn’t need tough business skills; the ships were sold to them for $10 apiece.
What the sisters did have, though, was American citizenship. Their father, Jaewoong Kim, had served as Dongwon’s general manager in Guam when the girls were young. By the time they were in grade school, the family had moved back to Korea; later both young women came to the U.S. and obtained their citizenship.
On paper, the women were the American owners of the boats. In practice, Dongwon — a corporation that Adam Baske, a tuna expert until recently with the Pew Charitable Trusts, calls “one of the international bad boys in terms of illegal fishing activity” — still controlled every decision made about or on the ships.
Pine had stumbled into the strange, Wild West world of distant water tuna fishing — where international laws of the sea were regularly ignored, and the power hierarchies that have ruled ships for centuries usurped.
From Doug Pine’s first meal in the galley, the hierarchy had been clear. Every member of the crew had a strict assigned seat. The fishing master was at the head of the table. Pine was across from an assistant engineer, next to the radio operator. The crew served themselves from the array of rice, fish, vegetables, and kimchi laid out family-style at every meal, but Kyong Su Kim, the fishing master, was served at his seat by the galley boy. Kim had his own service — gold chopsticks and spoon instead of the stainless steel ones used by the crew — and special plates and cups. The ice cream kept in the freezer was for the fishing master alone. And it hadn’t taken Pine long to realize that Kim was lodged in what should have been the captain’s cabin — a luxury suite compared with Pine’s cubbyhole.
The first time the crew set on a school of tuna, Pine rushed to the deck to watch the fish get loaded onboard. The ships regularly use free-floating rafts of flotsam known as fish aggregating devices, or FADs, to lure tuna. These man-made trash reefs — an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 are introduced into the Western and Central Pacific each year — are never removed from the ocean. Old ones eventually disintegrate, contributing to the already massive Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
FADS are extremely effective at luring their primary target, skipjack tuna, but also attract endangered turtles, sharks, rays, and juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna.
Bycatch can account for more than 30 percent of a ship’s total haul. In 2013, Western Pacific tuna ships landed 1.8 million metric tons of skipjack and 82,000 metric tons of bigeye — 90 percent of it caught as bycatch by purse seiners.
Bigeye are an overfished species — now at just 16 percent of its natural population size, according to Pew Foundation studies. Last fall, the retiring head of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission called bigeye populations “below the critical level” and recommended that all tuna fishing operations be suspended to allow the fish to recover. Pew estimates that tens of thousands of blue, silky, and oceanic whitetip sharks are killed in Western Pacific purse seine nets each year. It’s all contributing to an environmental catastrophe that easily rivals the dolphin scandal of three decades ago.
To Pine, the entire operation was novel. The net was gigantic, close to a mile around. The crew was preparing to haul it in and soon the pursed net, and herded fish, were collected near the stern of the ship, the top buoyed-up opening the only part of the massive web that broke the surface. Pine watched as the crew positioned the smaller brailer that would scoop the tuna out of the net and onto the ship. The fishing master was standing by the winch controls up on the uppermost deck. Pine went up to join him. As he watched the net floating at the surface, Pine thought he saw something out of place. Amid the tuna there was another big fish, something that looked like a dolphin, or maybe a marlin.
Curious, he turned to the fishing master. “Is that a dolphin?” he asked.
Kim immediately exploded. “You no speak!” he shrieked at Pine.
Pine cowered briefly, then quickly shut up and walked away. My God, what have I gotten myself into? he thought.
The fishing hadn’t been good, a fact that Pine guessed was contributing to the fishing master’s constant foul mood. Under normal circumstances, the boat might catch $30,000 or $40,000 worth of fish a day. The Korean officers were paid as a percentage of the catch; bad fishing meant a puny paycheck. The week Pine got on the ship was the beginning of a two-month period in which FAD use was banned fishery-wide in an attempt to give marine mammals a reprieve and fish stocks time to recover.
From what Pine could tell, though, the ban didn’t mean much to the Majestic Blue. He later heard that the fishing master of the Pacific Breeze said that his counterpart on the Majestic Blue didn’t know how to fish without using FADs. That big fish Pine saw in that first set, he later concluded, was probably a marlin: After all, as time went on he saw plenty of them hauled up in the net, along with other bycatch.
The saddest to him were the baby whale sharks. They were usually 10 or 12 feet long, smooth, gentle-seeming animals. As a kid on Maui, Pine did a lot of diving, and he and his friends would find themselves swimming with the graceful filter feeders at least a couple times a year. Now the creatures were coming up in the brailer along with the skipjack, a shimmery silver fish usually about two feet long. The crew would dump the load onto the lower deck, then shovel it down into the hold tanks where it would be frozen in brine. That’s when they’d pull the bycatch out. At that point the animals were usually still alive. But the crew didn’t bother to throw them back into the ocean until the work of collecting and freezing the tuna was done. By then, any signs of life were gone.
If Pine was intimidated by the fishing master, the junior-level crew were even more so. While the other officers were Korean, the deck crew were mostly Indonesian, Filipino, and Vietnamese, some still teenagers. The typical crewman was making $325 a month — less than $11 for working 15 to 18 hours each day. “It was outrageous,” Pine says. “This is an American ship, owned by an American company.” A low-level fisherman putting in similar hours on a big boat in Alaska might make $4,000 or $5,000 a month, or more than $130 a day. On the Majestic Blue, lower-level crew were often working one- to three-year contracts, deals arranged by foreign crewing agencies.
“You have to pay to secure your position,” says Chris Woodley, a retired Coast Guard captain who supervised the district that oversees Hawaii and the Western Pacific from 2012 to 2014. Sometimes, he says, details on death benefits to families were written into the contracts. “You are required to fulfill the whole three-year contract, and if you don’t, not only do you lose your job, but they take back money from you.”
A couple of weeks into his hitch, Pine was killing time in the wheelhouse when a young Indonesian crewman named Valentino was at the helm. The ship’s Korean chief engineer came up the steps, walked up behind Valentino, and kicked him hard in the balls. The Indonesian crumpled to the ground and Pine watched in shock as the engineer continued pummeling him full-force, screaming out a string of what Pine could only assume were Korean expletives. Then, suddenly, he was done, and he turned around and went back below. Valentino slowly stood up and shook himself off. He looked over at Pine, shrugged, and went back to the helm. Pine tried to talk to him about it, but it was clear Valentino didn’t want any trouble.
The Majestic Blue was at sea for a month before the first port call on Pine’s contract. It was another warm morning when the ship sailed into Pohnpei, a Micronesian island where it would offload tuna onto a larger ship bound for an Asian processing plant. The ship anchored and Pine thought maybe he’d jump over the side, go for a swim. But when he looked over the rail he saw a dirty sheen, a large patch running with the current. The stream, which looked to be water heavily contaminated with oil, seemed to be coming out of a bilge. A few drops of oil in the water was enough to set off alarms in Pine’s mind: He ran up to the wheelhouse, where he found the fishing master talking with a counterpart from another boat. “We’ve got oil going in the water,” Pine told them. Kim just looked at him like he was an idiot.
Pine tried calling the ship’s Korean agent at Dongwon’s office in Pohnpei. But the guy didn’t speak much English, and from the little he did speak it was clear to Pine that he didn’t give any more of a shit than the fishing master did.
Pine went looking for the chief engineer.
“Stop. You have to stop, there’s oil going overboard,” he said.
“It’s fish oil, it’s fish oil,” the engineer tried to soothe him.
“No. It’s not fish oil. I can smell it!” Pine argued.
He watched as the engineer grabbed a bottle of Joy soap and started squirting it over the side. When the dish soap hit the water, the oil started breaking up and sinking — something Pine knew fish oil wouldn’t do.
By the time Pine got back up to the wheelhouse, the fishing master had heard that his American captain had called Dongwon’s agent. He was furious, gesturing wildly and screaming at Pine in Korean.
“Look, we’re pumping oil into the water. We can’t do this, it’s got to stop,” Pine shouted.
“Go to hell!” the fishing master screamed. “Don’t tell me how to do my job. This is my boat!”
At last, the conversation calmed down, and Pine thought they’d reached some sort of détente. But when he put out his hand, the Korean slapped it away with another “Fuck you.”
Enough is enough, Pine thought. He retreated to his room, pulled out his laptop and wrote up a list of standing orders. “THIS IS A US FLAGGED VESSEL, AND AS SUCH WILL BE OPERATED AT ALL TIMES IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE UNITED STATES CODE OF FEDERAL REGULATIONS…” it began, first emphasizing that the waste management plan — which required garbage to be burned in a new diesel incinerator, something the crew never did — to be observed “to the letter of the law.” He then listed 22 conditions — including flooding, oil spills, and engine breakdown — under which the captain should be immediately notified of a problem onboard. A second declaration focused on the health and safety of the crew: “No officer under my command shall strike any member of the crew, in anger or in jest, at any time, for any reason.” Then Pine got online and found a company that would translate his work into Korean.
Pine posted his orders in the wheelhouse, in the galley, in the engine room. A few of the junior crew members found private moments to acknowledge his effort. But the few Koreans who had been civil to Pine beforehand now shunned him, and the fishing master was more pissed than ever. Every day Pine was required to sign the ship’s waste log, a requirement of the international treaty that regulates ship pollution. He started making notations on every signature page that he was aware that plastic and oil were going over the side, a feeble attempt, he thought, to cover his ass.
Halfway through his three-month contract, Pine emailed the office to ask if his own relief had been hired. When he was told no, he decided to proactively help out in the search. With the right co-captain, he imagined, he could institute a tag team and establish order over time. He posted a notice on gCaptain, a popular online forum for mariners where he was an active moderator. “I need a relief. Do you need a job?” he wrote.
The applicant’s name was David Hill.
Hill was 53, a tall, tan, out-of-work captain from Fort Lauderdale. He had a quick laugh and a signature white beard that friends say made him resemble Sean Connery — or the Gorton’s Fisherman. Hill’s standard gig was captaining luxury yachts for wealthy clients; he’d never worked on a fishing boat before, or so far from home. But work was work. “Things are getting rather serious here,” he emailed Pine on September 15, 2009. “I have never had such a hard time getting a job… I have two older kids in college and a fourteen month old here at home. They all want new shoes! Shitfire.”
Over the next few weeks the two men exchanged a series of friendly emails in which Pine laid the job’s many challenges on the table. “They have had a series of passive US captains who mostly were here to collect sleep and a paycheck. I’m no paper captain, and I’ve made that crystal clear to them,” Pine wrote. The Florida captain wasn’t deterred. “Keep me posted, I am your man if you want me,” he replied. “Can come today!”
Even as they swapped messages, Pine was growing more and more isolated on the ship. He hadn’t been surprised to find that his posted list of standing orders was ineffective. The fishing hadn’t improved, and neither had the Koreans’ mood. By early October, Pine was trying to avoid the Korean officers altogether, staying clear of the wheelhouse and showing up only at the tail end of meals. When he did encounter the fishing master it seemed like he was usually cursing Pine to his nearest ally, pointing at the American from across the room and swearing loudly.
He never did take that swim. He worried that if he got into the water he might never get out. As his fear grew, Pine began obsessing over scenarios in which the Korean officers busted into his cabin in the middle of the night, dragged him up to deck, and threw him overboard, his body never to be found. (This may not be as far-fetched as it seems: In 2013, the Coast Guard met a foreign tuna boat in port and discovered that two top officers were missing. The crew claimed to have no idea how they’d disappeared.)
Just days before his 90-day contract was up, Pine wrote a letter to be translated and passed to the fishing master, a last-gasp attempt to assert his authority. The boat was to be in port by 6 a.m. on October 18 for a pre-scheduled meeting with a Coast Guard pollution inspector. Pine knew the official would have flown in from Singapore just for them and would be waiting. When the hours passed with no sign the boat was headed toward port, Pine went to the wheelhouse. As soon as he mentioned the schedule the fishing master was livid again, screaming and cursing. Pine grabbed the satellite phone and locked himself back in his cabin. He dialed his wife. “Call the Coast Guard,” he told her. “Tell them I’m afraid for my safety. Tell them it’s mutiny.”
Pine didn’t leave his cabin until the Majestic Blue was safely at port. He hitched a ride to shore with the customs officials, found the waiting Coast Guard inspector, and vomited out his three-month saga. He told the inspector he wanted to bring charges of mutiny against the fishing master and second mate. The Coastie listened respectfully, but remained tepid. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked Pine.
The Coast Guard brought in backup officers. They examined the ship, and interviewed the crew. Pine flew home. A few months later, he was contacted by agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which is charged with enforcing environmental laws at sea. “At that point in time I was like, sure, I’ll talk to you about anything. I was on this crusade, going to rid the world of evil,” Pine recalls.
“Have you ever seen a fishing vessel setting on marine mammals?” the agents asked Pine. “Oh, yeah! My boat did,” Pine told them.
David Hill, meanwhile, decided to stick with his contract despite the hoopla he encountered when he greeted the ship for the first time. “He sent me an email later on that said, ‘The Coast Guard put the fear of God in those guys, they’re walking around on eggshells and treating me really well,’” Pine says.
A couple of weeks after Hill arrived in the Western Pacific he sent an email to his son, Spencer, then an engineering student at the Seattle Maritime Institute. “Dear boy of mine, Well we have a boat load full of fish and are heading back to Tarawa to offload,” the message began. “The crew sit down at the far end of the galley and there is lots of bowing and scraping whenever me or fish master enter the room…. I’m feeling about as usefull [sic] as an ashtray on a motorcycle…. Keep working hard in school. Wish I could help with mo money. Email soon. Love, Papa.”
The morning of June 14, 2010, dawned clear and calm over the Western Pacific. David Hill was three weeks into his second hitch as the Majestic Blue’s captain. The ship was about 625 nautical miles northwest of Fiji when the steering alarm sounded. It was 1:30 p.m., and the second engineer was on watch, so he headed to the rudder room at the bottom rear of the ship. As he approached, he saw that water was flowing in from around the rudder shaft and had already begun seeping through the doorway and invading the passageway that connected the rudder room with the engine room. He quickly turned and headed up to inform the chief engineer — failing to close the watertight door behind him.
By 1:55 p.m. everyone was off the ship — everyone except Hill. He’d passed down a backpack with his laptop and passport, then headed below decks to take another look at the engine room. Maritime work ran in his family. He had grown up hearing stories of relatives of his mother’s who’d worked in the engine room on the Titanic. They’d kept shoveling coal until the boat went down, the family lore went. Hill’s dad had served in the Pacific during World War II.
“This is my responsibility. I want to know what happened,” one crew member overheard him saying. Around 2 p.m., the Korean chief engineer, Chang Cheol Yang, got out of the net boat to follow Hill. From the water, the crew watched the two men emerge from the shaft that led from the engine room and head toward the wheelhouse, the highest compartment on the ship. “Get on the boat!” a few yelled to their officers. “Hurry! Get in!” Yang held up his index finger as if to say they’d be just a minute. Then both men disappeared inside, and the wheelhouse door closed behind them.
Less than two minutes later, the crew watched in horror as the 38-year-old vessel took a sharp, sudden roll to port. In seconds it capsized and plunged, the propeller and rudder the last parts of the ship to be gulped down beneath the mild seas.
Within a few months of David Hill’s death, his wife, Amy — whose second daughter, Sailor, was born after her husband died — contacted Florida maritime attorney Michael T. Moore. In early 2011 they filed a wrongful death case against Majestic Blue, LLC, and Dongwon itself.
Over time, Moore developed a multi-faceted case against the Korean fishing giant. Under oath, Joyce Kim admitted that she and her sister had no knowledge of tuna fishing or the day-to-day operations of the ships, and that they were not paid for their on-paper CEO roles. Two additional former captains corroborated the pollution and chain-of-command violations called out by Doug Pine, with one describing the Majestic Blue as a “piece of crap” and “the worst one I ever worked on in terms of seaworthiness.” Another former American captain described the practice the crew developed of setting the net on whales, apparently using the large animals like a substitute FAD during a period when those artificial reefs were banned.
Dongwon, it turned out, was using both the Majestic Blue and the Pacific Breeze as training ships, stocking them with novice officers and greenhorn crew. A long email record demonstrated the shoddy upkeep of the boat, and the weak safety knowledge of the crew, who failed to control or stop the flooding in any way. It was also revealed that just weeks before the boat sank, it had been in dry dock at a shipyard in China — one repeatedly described as subpar by Dongwon’s own employees. After its visit, the ship was leaking profusely around its rudder column, but company executives dismissed concerns.
Jurgen Unterbeg, Dongwon’s longtime representative in Guam, repeatedly told the company that the shipyard work didn’t come close to addressing the Majestic Blue’s issues, subpoenaed emails revealed.
“Dongwon must decide if they want to operate the boat in good order, which will mean that we will have to spend serious money, or if they want to continoue [sic] to operate the boat with minimum repairs, which in the end will cause the unit to eventually sink! Yes that is how serious it is!” Unterberg wrote to his Korean higher-ups in January 2010, five months before the Majestic Blue settled three miles deep in the Western Pacific.
On July 25, 2014, a judge in the American territory of Guam ruled that the Majestic Blue had been unseaworthy, the crew grossly inexperienced, undertrained, and incompetent. And, the judge declared, the company was aware of all this. In April, a jury on the island of Guam awarded Amy Hill $3.2 million in damages.
The deaths of David Hill and Chang Cheol Yang helped to prompt an investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health into safety onboard the distant water tuna boats. Between 2006 and 2012, the study found, crew onboard the 40 boats suffered 14 fatal and 20 non-fatal traumatic injuries, with nearly all of the cases happening after the number of foreign-controlled boats ramped up. The report noted that the distant water fleet is the only U.S. fishing fleet permitted to have foreign officers in key leadership positions; poor safety practices and language-related communication problems contributed to many of the incidents, the report suggested. Most received little, if any, attention in the media.
“If this stuff was going on in Alaska, it would be all over the news,” Woodley says. “The people who are dying on these boats are not U.S. citizens; they come from poor villages in Vietnam and Indonesia. And so nobody really cares. These guys are out of sight, out of mind.”
Most of the deaths were happening in the half of the fleet that was not-so-secretly under foreign control, and the degree to which the ships had been thumbing their nose at the law was shocking to Woodley. His office found a correlation between the ships that had manning violations, and those caught breaking environmental laws. In September, 2013, NOAA fined the South Pacific Tuna Corporation — which catches tuna for BumbleBee and Chicken of the Sea — close to $1 million for illegal FAD fishing on five different purse seiners. Six months later, the Coast Guard charged the same company with eight counts of illegally using unlicensed foreign crew to fill the officer roles on U.S.-flagged vessels.
“I started asking, where was the U.S.-approved chief mate, where was the U.S.-approved chief engineer? And in a number of cases they weren’t even on the boat! They’d never shown up.”
Woodley had worked in fishing vessel safety for more than two decades. “I’ve seen guys who had expired licenses and guys who didn’t have the right endorsement,” he says. “But I’ve never, ever, ever seen it where there was this purposeful evasion.”
So far there is no evidence that what happened on the Majestic Blue is going to improve regulation of the distant water tuna fleet. In fact, to the contrary: Big tuna has recently pushed Congress to further free the fleet from oversight.
In December 2014, President Obama signed a new Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act into law. It includes language — supported by Representative Duncan Hunter, a San Diego Republican who is the son and successor of the Duncan Hunter who helped push through the original manning exemptions — that eliminated the requirement that distant water tuna boats to make an annual call in a U.S. port like Guam or American Samoa (a requirement that was already being shirked). The mandatory Coast Guard report to Congress on the fleet — a document that made clear the percentage of foreign ownership of each of the boats and recorded crew injuries and deaths — has been scrapped. And the amount of money made by foreign companies fishing U.S.-flagged boats without providing American jobs or respecting U.S. environmental or labor regulations continues to grow.
As for Doug Pine? He doesn’t regret his attempts to call out wrongdoing, even if it made him miserable. Looking back, he knows he was naïve. He’s in good company with the millions of American consumers stocking their cupboards with cans of Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea, and StarKist.
This story was written by Kalee Thompson. It was edited by Michael Benoist and Bobbie Johnson, fact-checked by Ben Phelan and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi.
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