Pursue Those Responsible And Take Thorough Measures

One year has passed since a sightseeing boat sank off the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido. Sightseeing boat operators, which are responsible for the lives of the people on board, and the government should take to heart the lessons learned from the incident and do their utmost to prevent recurrence of a similar accident.

On April 23 last year, a tragedy occurred in which a sightseeing boat sank with 26 people on board, including the crew, killing 20 people. Six others remain missing, despite steadfast efforts to find them. The families of the victims are greatly saddened and angered.

The government’s Transport Safety Board has determined that the direct cause of the sinking was an open hatch on the bow of the ship, which allowed a large amount of seawater to flow into the bottom of the vessel while it was operating. The hatch door had been unable to close properly due to deteriorated parts.

Each of the three bulkheads dividing the holds and engine room below the deck had holes in them, allowing seawater to spread throughout the entire bottom of the vessel. If the bulkheads had been sealed, it is highly possible that the sinking could have been avoided. It can be said that inadequate inspections by the government and the operator, as well as flaws in the ship’s structure, contributed to the accident.

There were other problems, too. Stormy weather was forecast on the day of the incident, but the operating company set sail regardless. The president of the operating company, who was responsible for operations, was not in the office, and no means of communication with the ship had been secured. It must be said that the company exhibited a striking lack of awareness regarding the need to protect passengers’ lives.

A press conference was held four days after the accident, but since then, the president has not offered any explanation or apology in public. The families are understandably outraged by this irresponsible attitude.

The Japan Coast Guard continues to investigate the president and others on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death. Responsibility for this tragic accident must be rigorously pursued.

In response to the accident, the government submitted to the Diet a set of bills to revise the Maritime Transportation Law and other laws, including strengthened safety measures.

A qualification examination system will be introduced for ship operation managers and others to ensure that they are knowledgeable of laws, regulations and the weather. Penalties for violations will also be increased.

The safety standards for ships will be revised, and in order to avoid sinking, new vessels will be obliged to have their hulls sealed with bulkheads to prevent water from spreading through the bottom of the ship.

It is vital that these measures be steadily implemented. It is also essential for the government to carry out stringent checks to discern whether the regulations are effective.

Four companies — excluding the firm that caused the accident — reportedly plan to begin operating sightseeing boats off the Shiretoko Peninsula this season on or after April 28. Water temperatures in the area are still low and the weather can often be rough. Those operators must make careful assessments before deciding whether to set sail or not.

The JCG plans to deploy an additional helicopter to the base that has jurisdiction over the accident site, bringing the total number of such aircraft to three. At the time of the accident, there were no helicopters available to go to the scene immediately. It is essential that the search and rescue system be reexamined.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 23, 2023)