On June 17, 2019, the U.S.-flagged purse seiners American Eagle and Koorale, both out of Pago Pago, American Samoa, were pursuing the same school of tuna near the island of Kiribati, which is just north of the equator. Coast Guard manning exemptions allow the captain’s position to be temporarily filled by foreign nationals, called the “fishmaster,” when under way to fishing locations and while fishing. Then the U.S. licensed captain is referred to as the “navigator.”
Many seiners fishing out of America Samoa operate as a “code group,” exchanging fishing information such as position and catch size many times a day. On June 15, the 258-foot American Eagle and the 182-foot Koorale were after the same school of fish when the two fishmasters got on the radio to determine who had the right to the school.
That’s when the argument broke out. The American Eagle’s fishmaster said his counterpart on the Koorale “just started yelling” at him, while the Koorale fishmaster later said his counterpart on the American Eagle “insulted me.” (They would pay for those fits.)
Now, fast-forward two days. Both boats are actively searching for tuna, when about 4:30 pm the Koorale’s spotter in the tuna tower locates a school of tuna. He notifies the fishmaster, who turns the vessel towards the school and puts the throttle down at full ahead. The Koorale’s fishmaster is thinking “we got to be the first over there in the spot.”
About the same time, the American Eagle’s helicopter spots the same school and the seiner changed course and headed for it. Both fishmasters tell their crews to “stand by” to set the nets. The American Eagle’s fishmaster sees the Koorale coming towards the tuna and thinks, “it was a race.”
For moment the Koorale loses visual sight of the school but then picks them up on sonar, about 200 meters away at 10 degrees off the starboard bow. At the same time he knew the American Eagle was “still coming” — at 14 knots, downwind with 6 to 8-foot seas behind her.
The Koorale’s captain saw the American Eagle’s bearing down on them and told the fishmaster, who said, “Yeah, I know,” but did not alter course or speed concentrating instead on the sonar. The American Eagle’s fishmaster said he was “not paying attention to the Koorale,” concentrating strictly on the school of fish.
About 5:04 p.m. the American Eagle’s bow slammed down on the port side of the Koorale’s wheelhouse. The boat’s came together for several seconds and then separated.
What the National Transportation Safety Board’s marine accident brief reveals is that while the two vessels were in a crossing situation, neither vessel gave way, and there was no attempt to communicate with the opposing vessel as each raced toward the same school.
Both fishmasters told investigators the lack of communication was “because of their intense interaction with insults and yelling two days prior. Neither captain stepped in to communicate because of the unofficial hierarchy on board the vessels.”
There were no injuries and both vessels made it back to port. Totally damages were $8.3 million: $225,500 to the American Eagle and $8.1 million to the Koorale. That’s a very expensive hot temper.