Scores of trawlers `at risk of sinking'

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The Independent Online
DOZENS OF trawlers fishing around Britain's coast are inherently dangerous and receive safety approval by government inspectors without adequate checks on their stability, according to a confidential accident report into the deaths of four trawlermen.

Since 1990, 17 beam trawlers have sunk with the loss of 29 lives. Official statistics show that this type of trawler is four times more likely to sink than other types of fishing vessel.

The British fishing fleet has more than 130 "beamers", which have two large derricks (a type of crane), enabling crew to fish on both sides of the boat simultaneously. They are highly profitable: in the port of Newlyn in Cornwall they account for two-thirds of the catch although they represent only a small proportion of the local fleet.

A damning report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) into the loss of the Margaretha Maria, a Dutch-built vessel from Newlyn that went down in November 1997 with the loss of four crew, raises serious concerns about safety.

The report, which has been obtained for tonight's Channel 4 News, says: "This inquiry has revealed that the stability of beam trawlers may be dramatically reduced by normal operational movements of derricks and fishing gear."

The trawler "frequently and legitimately operated with a standard of sea-going stability substantially less than required of other types of fishing vessel".

The report continues: "With lower stability standards, safety would have been compromised", and adds that the instability of the vessel was so serious "that other vessels may be affected by a similar amount".

Fisherman have been aware that beamers can be unstable at the key moments when the derricks raise the nets filled with fish, but they rely on their skill to prevent accidents.

The report, to be published in the summer, says that the Margaretha Maria probably sank because of a large weight of debris in her raised nets, which made her unstable. Shelter doors on deck were left open but while this would have made her sink more quickly, it would not have caused the initial capsize.

The board says that urgent stability tests should be carried out on a range of beamers as they are fishing. Government inspectors from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) currently certify beam trawlers for stability without testing how they react under real working conditions.

Tonight's Channel 4 News reveals that beam trawlers are four times more likely to sink than other fishing vessels. In 1997, 134 of the 7,779 registered fishing boats were beam trawlers. Since 1990 a total of 253 fishing vessels have been lost, of which 17 were beam trawlers.

The Margaretha Maria left Newlyn harbour on a fine November afternoon with four men on board, including John Todd and his son Kerry, 24. Conditions were calm and the crew was due to return two days later. But the trawler disappeared without trace.

Three months later, the body of the skipper, Robbie Holmes, was found, but the other three men are thought to lie with the trawler on the ocean bed.

Their relatives mounted a campaign for an investigation into the safety of beam trawlers. The board's report states that MCA inspectors do not test beam trawlers' stability when the boats are at their most vulnerable - raising tons of fish in two nets using derricks on either side of the boat.

Moira Todd blames the agency for the loss of her husband and son. She said: "The MCA are charged with carrying out stability tests, sending these boats to sea in a safe condition, and they are not doing it. It's like doing an MoT test in a car without testing the brakes or testing that the wheels are on.

"The three wives were determined to find out the truth. Over the past 18 months we've put constant pressure on the MAIB."

She remembered the last time she saw her husband and son: "It was a fine Tuesday afternoon, about 4.30pm. They wouldn't have gone out if the weather had been bad because they were always careful, especially with that boat.

"They were supposed to have left a day earlier but they were delayed because of some problem - there were always problems with the boat.

"Kerry had been fishing for two years after he left university, to save up enough money to go backpacking. The accident happened six weeks after he got back. He was making a bit of money before deciding what direction his life should take."

The body of Mr Holmes was spotted in fishing grounds 50 miles south-west off Lizard Point in February last year. A naval ship located the wreck of the Margaretha Maria on the seabed about five miles from where Mr Holmes' body was discovered.