Why were slipshod operations of sightseeing boat firm not prevented?

It has been one month since the accident in which a sightseeing boat sank off the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido. In addition to the operating company’s disregard for safety, inadequate inspections by the government have also come to light. The lessons learned from this incident must be used to prevent a recurrence.

Many were killed in the accident, and search activities are still underway for the missing people. Work has also begun to salvage the boat, which sank to the bottom of the sea.

After the accident, the operating company’s careless safety management was revealed. It repeatedly sent out its vessels even when bad weather was forecast, saying the boats would return if the sea became rough. It has also been learned that the president of the company, who serves as the operations manager, was not in the office at the time of the accident.

The company used amateur radio, which in principle is not allowed for businesses, to communicate with the ship. It is stunning to see the number of actions that are suspected of violating relevant regulations. There is no doubt that the biggest factor behind the tragedy was the lack of safety awareness by the operating company, which is responsible for human lives.

However, another problem is that the government’s system of checks was inadequate.

The sunken boat had two accidents last year, and the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry had issued administrative instructions. After the instructions were given, the company submitted a report on its improvements, along with boat operations records. The records contained suspicious figures giving the same wind speed and wave height for consecutive days, but the government failed to inquire about them.

During an on-site inspection to verify the status of the improvements, the company was deemed to have “improved safety and legal compliance awareness compared to the past.”

During another inspection of the boat conducted three days before the accident, inspectors accepted the captain’s explanation that a cell phone would work at sea, and allowed the vessel to switch from a satellite phone. In fact, most of the boat’s route was outside the reception area for the cell phone in question.

Other companies in the same industry on the peninsula have also been found to have safety management problems. The administrative authorities are supposed to monitor operational safety, but may have been too friendly with the businesses involved to fulfil their role.

The central government should take seriously the fact that after the inspection, many lives were lost. It has a responsibility to take steps to verify and explain what went wrong, such as questioning the officials who were then in charge about the situation.

A government expert panel has begun to study future safety measures for sightseeing boat operations. It is important to thoroughly discuss the licensing of such businesses and punitive actions, as well as the inspection system.

There is also an urgent need to review the rescue system. It took about three hours from the time this accident was reported for the first helicopter to arrive on the scene.

The Japan Coast Guard said it will consider increasing the number of helicopters and personnel. The JCG should also cooperate with the police and the Self-Defense Forces to create an environment that will facilitate prompt rescue efforts.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 23, 2022)