WASHINGTON - A fishing boat that sank off the Alaska coast last year most likely lost its rudder, then flooded and went down, killing five crew members, federal safety officials said Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the 35-year-old boat did not have internal controls that would have prevented flooding in the so-called rudder room from spreading into other areas of the 189-foot vessel. In a report, the board said uncontrolled flooding was the probable cause of the tragedy, but conceded that much about the incident is unknown.
The Alaska Ranger sank in March 2008 in the Bering Sea, west of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Five of the boat's 47 crew members - including the captain, chief engineer and mate - were among the dead.
The vessel now lies under 6,000 feet of water and has never been examined by safety officials.
The safety board recommended that the Coast Guard seek authority from Congress to require that commercial fishing vessels be inspected, a process that now is voluntary. The board has recommended that Congress impose mandatory inspections three times in recent years to no avail.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said current laws protect the quality of fish better than they do the safety of fishermen - despite the dangers inherent in commercial fishing.
"It's not called the 'Deadliest Catch' for no reason," she said, referring to a popular cable TV series. "This is the deadliest industry. We need to do more to protect fishermen."
Despite a substantial reduction in deaths during the past two decades, the fishing industry still has the nation's highest worker-fatality rate. In recent years, fishermen died at a rate more than 35 times the national average for occupational deaths, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Alaska has some of the most treacherous fisheries. Besides the Alaska Ranger, seven people died when the Seattle-owned Katmai fishing boat went down last October in a storm off Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
The Alaska Ranger, owned by the Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska, used trawler nets to catch mackerel and other fish that were then processed on board. The boat lost power after it began flooding early on Easter Sunday and went into reverse. The backward movement of the boat made evacuation more difficult. Only 22 crew members made it into life rafts.
Among those who died in the accident was Satashi Konno of Japan, who represented Japan-based Anyo Fisheries. The company bought the fish caught and processed by the Alaska Ranger.
The incident led the Coast Guard to issue a safety warning to ship owners about controllable-pitch propellers. Nationwide, hundreds of seagoing vessels have controllable-pitch propulsion systems, which allow the angle of the propeller blades to be adjusted to improve efficiency and directional control.
Karen Jacobsen of Hingham, Mass., the eldest daughter of boat captain Eric "Pete" Jacobsen, said she was distressed to learn that some of the boat's interior doors were not made watertight, as recommended, and that many of the crew members had apparently been drinking in the hours before the accident.
A bill pending in the House would require safety inspections of commercial fishing vessels at least once every other year.