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Classification of US Fishing Vessels


The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 (CGAA) established new safety and equipment requirements for commercial fishing vessels. Among these rules was the requirement that new commercial fishing vessels built after July 1, 2013 that are at least 50 feet overall in length, and will operate beyond the 3 nautical mile demarcation line, meet survey and classification requirements.

Classification promotes a safer vessel by verifying the structural strength and integrity of essential parts of the vessel’s hull and the reliability and function of the propulsion and steering systems, power generation and other essential systems.

The fishing vessel industry fatality rate is 30 times higher than the average of other US industries. According to an analysis of commercial fishing fatalities for the period 2000 – 2009 conducted by the Alaska Pacific Regional Office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), vessel disasters account for 51 percent of fatalities, with the top two initiating events being flooding (25 percent) and instability (16 percent).

Of the flooding disasters a majority were the result of downflooding or leakage below the waterline. Of the disasters caused by instability, 43 percent were the result of overloading, 25 percent from hauling up a heavy net, 13 percent from a shifting load, 8 percent from icing, 4 percent from structural issues, 4 percent from slack tanks, and 4 percent were unknown.

The Northeast Scallop fishery suffered the highest number of fatalities, followed by the West Coast Dungeness crab fishery, the Alaska Sole fishery and the Northeast Multispecies Groundfishery.

A US Coast Guard “Analysis of fishing vessel Casualties – A Review of Lost Fishing Vessels and Crew Fatalities, 1992 – 2010” recorded similar results, with 53 percent of deaths attributable to flooding, sinking or capsizing. The most vessel losses were in Alaska (56 percent), followed by the Gulf of Mexico and the Northeast. The Coast Guard found that 67 percent the flooding incidents were caused by hull or equipment failure. Fire was the second leading cause of vessel loss, with 73 percent originating in the engine room.

There is no question that good procedures for safe operation and associated training are effective means for reducing the number of casualties. At the same time, in a majority of cases the vessel itself – the platform – is critical for survival of those onboard. Good design, strong hulls, reliability and availability of critical systems are crucial. Classification is an integral element of this picture.

With this in mind, US law requires that all new fishing vessels at least 50 feet overall in length are to be built and maintained to classification rules. DNV GL is the only classification society to develop rules specifically for the US domestic fishing fleet, addressing how fishing vessels are designed, built and maintained for safety.

The United States is the fifth largest fishing nation in the world, with approximately 110,000 commercial vessels. This means that there are more than a hundred thousand US fishermen who work on fishing vessels that often operate in harsh conditions and rough weather. Their workplace is on the open seas, and a vessel built and maintained to classification standards helps ensure they will return safely to shore.

Managing Risks Effectively

DNV GL has studied the main risks for fishing vessels. They include lack of watertight subdivision and integrity, shifting loads, flooding, fires, icing, equipment failure and structural issues. These are all addressed in the classification rules. We also know that cost effective solutions are critical for a fishing vessel, so a clear priority has been to make sure the classification process is as effective and practical as possible, yet at the same time achieving all-important safety objectives.

DNV GL is the world’s largest classification society, with 13,000 vessels (including 1,000 fishing vessels) worldwide designed, built and maintained according to its rules. Regular classification rules and processes are designed for much bigger and more complex ships, such as tankers and containerships and might be impractical and even unsuitable for fishing vessels of this size. DNV GL therefore decided to develop rules specific for US fishing vessels.

Simplifying and optimizing the rules for smaller fishing vessels has been done in dialogue with the industry, looking at the entire process: Design, approval, sourcing of equipment, surveys at yards during construction and subsequently onboard the vessel, with an eye on achieving safety goals for the fishing vessel and its crew, as well as maintaining efficient operations.

When the US Congress mandated this requirement in 2010, a fishing vessel was sinking every third day. As part of the offshore and maritime cluster here in the US, DNV GL has since then worked with the US Coast Guard and the fishing vessel industry to effectively address the most important risks, while translating the industry’s experiences and concerns into effective rules that balance safety and cost considerations. We now look forward to further collaboration with an industry that is keen to improve its safety performance.

DNV GL started work on the US fishing vessel rules in 2011, including several outreach meetings and correspondence with industry members. The first rules were made widely available in 2012, by sending the draft rules to 13 Naval Architecture firms, 42 builders, and 35 vendors of machinery and equipment for commercial fishing vessels. DNV GL continued this outreach again this year at Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle.

The “DNV GL Tentative Rules for Domestic Class – US Fishing Vessels” are now available for use and download from DNV GL. The term “Tentative” indicates that these rules may be modified on short notice, with a shorter change process than would otherwise normally be required. Implied in this is that industry discussions and real-world calibration are expected and welcome, coordinated from the company’s US headquarters in Houston, Texas.

The next step is a broader dialogue with all the designers, yards, equipment manufacturers and fishing vessel operators to inform about the rules, and listen to the concerns and questions they will have to the new requirements. Putting the rules into practice is the best way to meet these objectives.

Cost and Benefits

Building to class, and maintaining to class standards, means that some parts of the vessel will meet a higher standard than might be the norm in the industry. This increased safety carries a cost, which DNV GL has attempted to minimize by concentrating on the most critical elements. This investment may however also lead to significant benefits, in addition to potentially saving lives and reducing accidents. Such benefits could include:

• increased resale value, both considering the initial higher standard and documented maintenance of that standard through the classification system

• better terms from underwriters, through better risk management

• better terms from banks, finance institutions and mortgage companies

To help the industry with these changes, the US fishing vessel rules are simplified in scope compared to traditional classification rules, and the fees reflect this simplified scope. The rules allow for extensive use of “Industry Standard” materials and equipment, but class certification may still be required for some critical equipment. All mandatory US Coast Guard requirements must be met. Although the rules are primarily for steel vessels, aluminum or GRP may be used for vessels of less than 79 feet.

The domestic class certificate is valid for 5 years, with annual surveys and a dry-docking at the end of the 5th year. In some cases, surveys could be adjusted to correspond to seasonal fishing schedules, and could even be partly based on owner’s inspection, subject to approval and class oversight.

While commercial fishing will always be a dangerous profession, the hazards will undoubtedly be reduced with the broad adoption of classification rules, such as those developed by DNV GL, during the construction and maintenance of commercial fishing vessels.

The DNV GL rules can be downloaded at

Joar Bengaard was employed by DNV (now DNV GL) for more than 40 years in both technical and managerial positions in Norway, Japan, Korea and the US. After retiring two years ago, he has been retained as a consultant project manager for the US fishing vessel classification rules. He can be contacted at


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