Make utmost effort to find people remaining unaccounted for

A sightseeing boat went missing off the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido on Saturday afternoon shortly after reports that it was taking on water and sinking. A total of 26 passengers including two children and crew members were reported to have been aboard the boat.

The Japan Coast Guard’s regional headquarters, police and a local fisheries cooperative association were among those who conducted search operations and found some people, but all of them were confirmed dead.

The ship has not yet been found, and the JCG and the Self-Defense Forces are continuing the search. Although spring has come, the water temperature remains low in the area where the boat went missing. Efforts must be expedited to search for the remaining missing people.

Shiretoko has been inscribed by UNESCO as a natural site on its World Heritage list, and passengers aboard the sightseeing boats can view at close range brown bears and dolphins in the wild and other attractions such as waterfalls. The tourism season in the area usually gets into full swing after the Golden Week holidays. The operator of the vessel that went missing began conducting tours on April 23, ahead of other sightseeing boat operators.

It is rocky in many parts of the waters off the peninsula, and in June last year the boat that went missing ran aground. In the following month, the operator of the boat received instructions from the Hokkaido District Transport Bureau on how to ensure transportation safety.

On the day of Saturday’s accident, the waves began growing stronger from around noon, and local fishing vessels reportedly turned back to port before then. Could it be that the operator forced the vessel to sail in order to increase revenue amid a declining number of tourists during the pandemic?

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry on Sunday conducted a special audit of the operator based on the Marine Transportation Law. The Japan Transport Safety Board has also dispatched marine accident investigators to the site. It is important to obtain detailed information from the company about the situation at the time of the boat’s departure and safety measures.

The site where the boat disappeared is about 160 kilometers from Kushiro Air Station of the JCG’s regional headquarters, and a JCG helicopter arrived there more than three hours after reports of the incident were made. Patrol boats and other aircraft later joined the search, but soon the sun set, making the operation difficult.

The JCG also made a request only after it was nighttime to the SDF for the dispatch of a disaster relief mission. It is necessary to examine whether there are any flaws in the initial response and rescue system utilized in the event of a marine accident such as this.

With the Golden Week holidays just around the corner, the tourist season will soon begin. In recent years, there has been no end to sightseeing boats running aground or being involved in collisions in various parts of the country.

Companies operating sightseeing boats should place the highest priority on safety and check their navigation routes, equipment and response procedures to protect the lives of passengers in the event of an accident.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 25, 2022)