fishing vessel

‘Paper Captain’ Operator Faces Stiffer Penalty for Repeat Offenses

Mike Schuler
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November 28, 2022

The operator of a Washington State-based tuna fishing vessel who was found to have used a “paper captain” in violation Jones Act manning requirements is facing a heftier fine after a review discovered they are repeat offenders.

As gCaptain reported last month, the fishing vessel operator was issued a notice of violation for $3,000 after a law enforcement team from Coast Guard Sector Columbia River boarded the U.S.-flagged vessel and determined it was commanded by an illegal foreign national, even though documentation showed that a U.S. national (aka a “paper captain”) was at the helm.

gCaptain has learned that the operator in this case has since declined the notice of violation, converting the case to a civil penalty to be heard before a Coast Guard hearing officer.

A review of the vessel history has also yielded two previous violations for Jones Act (Title 46) manning requirements, prompting the Coast Guard to raise the recommended penalty from the $3,000 to $12,968.50, which is the average penalty for a repeat offender. If the case is successfully adjudicated, the vessel’s Certificate of Documentation (COD) will be rescinded.

Paper captain is a term applied to an individual listed on documents as a U.S.-flagged vessel’s captain, but in actuality serves as a deckhand or in a similar lower-level capacity. According to section 12131 of title 46 of the United States Code, a U.S. documented vessel must be under the command of a U.S. citizen.

Fishing vessels in particular have a history of engaging in the practice of hiring foreign nationals to serve on U.S. commercial fishing vessels in the capacity of captain, while U.S. nationals, who are identified as captains on paper, serve in subordinate roles.

To crack down on the issue, the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River has been actively engaged in Operation FLAT STANLEY since 2020. The operation has so far detected a total of ten Jones Act paper violations, primarily in the tuna fleets that operate throughout the Pacific Ocean, resulting in penalties of more than $63,000. Sector Columbia River, which is specially trained and equipped to handle paper cases, has more Jones Act adjudications than the rest of the Coast Guard combined.

Operators who engage in the practice often go to great lengths to conceal the activity, from using fraudulent crew contracts to turning off their Automatic Identification System (AIS). In one instance last year, the Coast Guard interdicted multiple vessels as they entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca after they had changed their Notice of Arrival from Westport, Washington to Canada following the boarding of one of their sister vessels. An inspection of the vessel discovered there was no U.S. Citizen aboard.

Westport has actually seen more “paper captain” detections than any other port in the U.S. The Coast Guard speculates that this is because the activity is more common among highly migratory species (HMS) fishing vessels, which operate mostly outside U.S. waters but call on Westport to offload their catch.

Detecting paper captain violations are also difficult to detect and prove. Coast Guard Petty Officers are specially trained to detect and gather evidence, with Sector Columbia River receiving additional training to aid in the investigations.

“I am incredibly proud of the case packages put together by our Sector’s Petty Officers. The factual documentation combined with legal analysis is exceptionally impressive and has resulted in a 100% success rate for what is one of the most complicated laws the Coast Guard is expected to enforce,” said U.S. Coast Guard LCDR C. M. Fogarty, Enforcement Chief for Sector Columbia River. “It demonstrates not only their intelligence but their commitment to enforcing laws that protect hardworking fisherman and mariners.

“Title 46 Manning Requirements protect the jobs of hardworking, well trained mariners. When outfits or vessels engage in “paper captain” activities it means that they are leaving American fisherman on the docks. It is in the national interest that the Coast Guard do the hard work and identify scofflaw vessels. In doing so, we are protecting jobs in our local communities, ensure fisherman can feed their families, and put shoes on their children’s feet. U.S. law is clear-US flagged vessels must be mastered by U.S. Fisherman, we are proud of our work to uphold these laws and protect highly trained American job,” adds LCDR Fogarty.

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