Fishing Vessel To Pay $1 Million Fine For Am. Samoa Oil Spill

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Consent decree includes civil penalties, fleet-wide inspections

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Oct. 29, 2015) – The owners of a fishing vessel that provides fish for the local canneries has agreed to pay a little over $1 million in civil penalties and perform fleet-wide inspections and other corrective measures to resolve claims stemming from an oil spill last year inside Pago Pago Harbor.

This is according to the federal government and a Consent Decree filed yesterday in the federal court in Honolulu.

The 26-page decree, which requires a 30-day public comment period, and a 13-page civil complaint was filed by the Justice Department against Tri Marine Management Co., Tri-Marine Fishing Management, and Cape Mendocino Fishing.

The USDOJ and the US Coast Guard issued a joint statement about the complaint and the Consent Decree, and the fact that owners of the fishing vessel Captain Vincent Gann have agreed to pay $1.05 million in civil penalties.

Tri Marine issued their own statement saying that the company has settled with the USDOJ and the fishing vessel agrees to pay a fine for carrying fuel in unauthorized space, but didn’t disclose the amount of the fine. When asked for comments, Tri Marine spokesperson Heide Happonen confirmed to Samoa News that a fine was imposed "but we are not discussing the amount at this time."

Provisions of the Consent Degree state that the defendants shall pay to the US government the total sum of $1.05 million, plus interest, as a civil penalty. The penalty amount includes $176,225 attributed to the oil spill violation alleged in Count One [of the four count] complaint.

It also says that the defendants "deny the allegations in the Complaint and deny liability" but they are committed to working with the Coast Guard and other representatives of the U.S. tuna fleet based in Pago Pago, American Samoa, to ensure compliance with oil spill prevention and maritime safety regulations.

According to the Consent Decree, all parties have negotiated this settlement in good faith and this Decree is fair, reasonable, and in the public’s interest.

The Consent Decree requires Tri-Marine to perform inspections and corrective measures across its entire fleet of ten American Samoa-based vessels, including a top-to-bottom review and overhaul of all of the vessels’ oil handling practices, operator certifications, independent audits, increased reporting, and the engagement of a full-time consultant or in-house personnel focused on environmental and maritime compliance.

In the federal complaint, the government alleges that the FV Capt. Vincent Gann returned to Pago Pago Harbor from a two-month fishing voyage, when it struck two moored fishing vessels while maneuvering in to the harbor on Oct. 16, 2014. The hull of the Capt. Vincent Gann was breached during the crash and at least 35 barrels of marine fuel oil flowed out of the bulbous bow into the water. It is illegal to store fuel in the bulbous bow.

The complaint alleges that the illegal oil storage was done to extend the duration of the fishing voyage and allow storage of a larger catch of fish. The extra fuel oil had been stored in two of the fish holds, but the oil was transferred out of the fish holds to the bulbous bow to make room for the storage of tuna in those fish holds.

The complaint also alleges the vessel was equipped with unlawful piping configurations that tied the bilge water system into the fuel system and that the extra fuel originally was loaded into the vessel using an unauthorized method of pumping fuel oil with hoses over the top of the deck into open fish holds.

In its statement, vessel owners said they cooperated with the U.S. Coast Guard and USDOJ but did not admit any liability as part of the settlement, and that on the day of the incident, the vessel was docking at the harbor to deliver a full load of tuna for canning in American Samoa.

During the final phase of the docking maneuver the vessel suffered an electrical failure in its throttle controls which resulted in a collision with other vessels at the dock, it says, adding that the collision damaged the bulbous bow of the vessel and some fuel stowed in the vessel’s forepeak tank was released into the harbor. The fuel was promptly cleaned up by the vessel’s crew and port engineers under the supervision of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The statement stressed that Tri Marine Fishing Management’s policy is in keeping with the U.S. Coast Guard regulations that prohibit carrying fuel in compartments forward of the collision bulkhead.

As a result of this incident, it was discovered that a crew member on the vessel did not follow company policy and had improperly transferred fuel to that space. The company has reinforced its policy with all employees to ensure this type of incident does not happen again.

Tri Marine president Renato Curto said the company is committed to leading the industry in not only meeting the letter of the law, but exceeding it in many areas of our business. "Humans make mistakes despite these best intentions. We are grateful that the release of oil was cleaned up quickly," he said.

Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden, of the USDOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said the settlement reached with Tri Marine sends a clear message to vessel owners and operators that they cannot put profits ahead of protection of the marine environment or compliance with the law.

"We are grateful to our partners at the U.S. Coast Guard for their swift and diligent investigation of these violations," he said.

Capt. Shannon Gilreath, Sector Commander of the Coast Guard’s Sector Honolulu, which covers both American Samoa and Hawaii, pointed out that storage of oil in the bulbous bow has long been prohibited and poses obvious and serious risks to a vessel’s crew and the marine environment. "This enforcement action reinforces this point and emphasizes safety and pollution prevention measures within this fleet of vessels," Gilreath said.

As part of the settlement with USDOJ, Tri Marine says it has agreed to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all vessels it manages to ensure compliance with Coast Guard regulations.

Capt. Vincent Gann is part of the Cape Fleet of 10 purse seiners that are managed by Tri Marine Fishing Management and based in American Samoa, where they are an important source of fish supply to Samoa Tuna Processors, a Tri Marine company, and StarKist Samoa, according to the Tri Marine statement.

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