U.S. Coast Guard investigators have been holding a hearing in Newport this week to look into the circumstances surrounding an incident last January when a commercial fishing boat, the Mary B II, was crushed by waves off the tip of the north jetty of Yaquina Bay. The captain and two crewmembers died in that accident, their bodies later recovered on the beach.
Testimony during this week’s hearing has revealed that the boat’s captain, Stephen Biernacki, had methamphetamine and alcohol in his system at the time the boat went down. A physician who specializes in maritime drug tests, Brian Bourgeois, testified, “I would term this mariner not fit for duty and certainly not seaworthy.”
Further testimony revealed that Biernacki apparently had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as violent behavior while aboard fishing vessels, and had, in fact, been the captain of a boat on the East Coast that ran aground on a beach.
It is unfortunate when any person’s lifestyle choices lead him or her down a path of self-destruction, but when that path also claims of the lives of innocent others, one has to wonder, how did it reach that point?
We know a number of boat captains and crew members in Lincoln County, and we also know of captains and owners of vessels that have some of the strictest employment standards we’ve ever seen in terms of how their crew members conduct themselves while on the job. This can even extend to their behavior off the job — failed drug tests have resulted in the termination of employment for some crewmembers.
So what could have been done differently in the case of Biernacki and the Mary B II? Our commercial fishing industry is largely self-monitoring, but even if there were concerns around the local docks about Biernacki’s behavior, what would have been the appropriate course of action?
That could be part of the Coast Guard’s discussion at the conclusion of this week’s hearing in Newport. Should boat captains be subject to random drug testing? Should there be new authoritative rules governing commercial fishing and/or maritime transport in an effort to avoid these types of incidents in the future? It’s a tough call.
What we do know is that commercial fishing is a dangerous profession, even among those who conduct their operations in the safest manner possible and with the highest degree of integrity. The loss of life due to a fishing tragedy is always going to be painful, but if something can be done to prevent that loss in a situation like that surrounding the Mary B II, then perhaps some regulatory action needs to be taken.