'Unacceptable': Coroner critical of Fisheries' VMS rollout
THE Department of Fisheries has been slammed by a coroner for maintaining for decades that the Vessel Monitoring System does not have safety functions.
Handing down his findings from the inquest into the sinkings of fishing vessels Dianne and Cassandra today, Central Coroner Magistrate David O'Connell was critical of the department's failure to make the fishing industry aware of the safety functions in the VMS.
The Dianne capsized and sunk off the coast of Seventeen Seventy on October 16, 2017.
Ruben McDornan was the only crew member to survive and only two of the six other crew members bodies have been found.
A joint inquest was held to investigate the cause of the sinkings of the Cassandra in April 2016 and the Dianne and whether the loss of eight crewmen could have been prevented.
The bodies of Adam Hoffman, 30, and skipper Ben Leahy, 45, were found by police divers in the Dianne but fisherman Eli Tonks, 39, Adam Bidner, 33, Zach Feeney, 28, and Chris Sammut, 34, were never found.
The bodies of Cassandra skipper Matt Roberts, 61, and crewman David Chivers, 36, were also never found.
Mr O'Connell determined that those six men who were not found had drowned.
The VMS is an external monitoring system that tracks movements of commercial vessels, and was on the Dianne and Cassandra.
Mr O'Connell said the affidavit provided by Department of Fisheries to the inquest stated on four occasions that the VMS did not have a safety function.
But as the inquest progressed, Counsel for DAF conceded that the VMS did have a safety component; that when a regular radio signal is not issued by a vessel, the monitoring computer will generate a report that a poll has been missed.
He described DAF's approach to the VMS "simply bureaucratic obstruction".
"The worst aspect was it took until sometime during the inquest before any concession was made by the Department that not only was this function of the VMS currently available, and that it already exists, but that it had existed for quite some time," Mr O'Connell said.
"What I find unacceptable is that a Government Department can 'sell' system to the industry claiming it has a benefit to the industry but then not implement the system with that benefit; but worse is to take a demonstrably wrong position to claim that the system cannot do this function and maintain that in their statements to the inquest.
"Bureaucrats such as these need to understand that they exist to serve the public and carry out the functions of government. The Department would be wise to investigate and learn how the industry's concerns on this safety aspect could have been brushed away and not acted upon for so many years, especially so after inquests on precisely this issue previously.
"Noting the concession given by DAF at the inquest that they will enact the 'failure to poll' alert into the QPS system, that is helpful and very pleasing to see."
It was evidence from Barry Erkhe that revealed the VMS system was sold to fishermen, including the safety aspect, in the 1990s.
"It must be a very pleasing day for persons like Mr Erkhe to see action he has pursued for nearly 30 years to finally occur," Mr O'Connell said.
Mr O'Connell said it was "inconceivable" that four hours had passed after the Cassandra capsized before the rescue began, and that a rescue did not begin until 12 hours after the Dianne sunk.
"Delay puts lives in peril, it also increases the search area for rescue authorities making the exercise far more costly and personnel intensive," he said.
Mr O'Connell said there were reasonable, practical and inexpensive safety measures to be implemented to reduce the likelihood of similar incidents happening again.
In his nine recommendations was for the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries to immediately implement the 'failure to poll' function of the VMS system to allow QPS to be notified by text and email.
He also recommended for vessels to have emergency Grab Bags in the sleeping cabin and at the helm and self-illuminating LED strip-lighting and emergency exit signs.
He also recommended for bulky items to be restrained by straps and that fishermen wear inflatable style PFD vests while working on the decks of a vessel.
The fishing industry has been encouraged to investigate solutions to ensure doors on vessels can be opened against water pressure and review the use of quad gear in the Sandy Straits area for trawling.
Mr O'Connell said the circumstances around the inquest were significant, given 18 commercial fishermen have died at sea in the waters off Queensland since 2004.
"Too many people in the fishing and trawling industry have been lost over the years and despite a number of inquests recommending improved safety measures little has actually changed or been implemented despite technology being available," he said.