Federal teams working in the Pacific Northwest uncovered eight cases of U.S.-flag commercial vessels illegally employing foreign nationals during the summer tuna season out of Washington state, Coast Guard officials said.

Working with Customs and Board Protection and NMFS law enforcement officers, the Coast Guard says since 2019 it documented so-called “paper captain” violations – documentation claiming a U.S. crew member as the captain, when in fact the vessel was under command of a foreign national.

“Paper captain is a term applied to an individual listed on documents as a U.S.-flagged vessel’s captain but in actuality serves as a deckhand or in a similar lower‐level capacity. It is the law that a documented vessel be under the command of a U.S. citizen,” according to a Coast Guard statement.

Under the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, U.S. commercial vessels must be under command of U.S. citizens. Some fisheries, such as the western Pacific tuna seine fleet, can employ U.S. captains who are assisted during fishing operations by subordinate foreign national “fishing masters.”

“The employment of a foreign national as captain aboard a U.S.-flagged commercial fishing vessel is illegal,” said Lt. Cmdr. Colin Fogarty, the enforcement chief at Coast Guard Sector Columbia River in Warrenton, Oregon. “The practice of utilizing ‘paper captains’ subverts U.S. laws and regulations designed to protect hard-working American fishermen and mariners.”

The Coast Guard says the specific violations are in listing the paper captains on Notices of Arrival/Departure that vessel owners submitted to the Coast Guard and CBP, along with fraudulent fishing agreement contracts submitted to the Coast Guard. Providing fraudulent documents to the Coast Guard or other federal agencies is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years.

So far one Washington-based fishing fleet has paid $9,150 in civil penalties and has been cited for $140,000 in additional penalties still pending adjudication, according to the Coast Guard.

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Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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