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The Yokohama Maritime Accident Tribunal determined Jan. 22 that insufficient surveillance on the part of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s 7,750-ton Aegis destroyer Atago was the main cause of its Feb. 19, 2008, collision with the 7.3-ton trawler Seitoku Maru, which killed the two fishermen aboard the trawler.

The tribunal stopped short of issuing “recommendations” to the Atago’s captain and three other officers designated as “parties concerned in the accident.” But the MSDF and the Defense Ministry should seriously consider the fact that the tribunal did issue a recommendation to the 3rd Escort Flotilla’s 3rd Escort Division — the fifth party concerned in the accident — to which the Atago belongs.

The tribunal said the flotilla division established neither an adequate surveillance structure for the bridge and radar-linked Combat Information Center nor a proper communication and reporting system between them. It added that a similar accident could recur unless the division takes “effective steps” to “comprehensively improve” the situation. This is a strong indictment of systemic problems in the MSDF organization.

The MSDF had received a similar recommendation in connection with the July 23, 1988, collision between the MSDF submarine Nadashio and a pleasure-fishing boat in Tokyo Bay, which killed 30 people and injured 17 others aboard the latter. The fact that the MSDF has now received an almost identical call for organizational improvement 20 years after it pledged to take steps to prevent a recurrence of a collision incident demands serious self-examination on the part of the MSDF and the Defense Ministry. They also should note that a maritime accident tribunal usually does not issue a recommendation to an organization if the organization has taken sufficient corrective measures following an accident.

The tribunal’s verdict blamed insufficient surveillance on the part of the Atago and its failure to avoid a collision course with the Seitoku Maru, which was cutting across in front of the destroyer from right to left. The trawler was deemed partly responsible due to its failure to issue a warning signal and to take cooperative action to avoid a collision.

The verdict specifically blamed an officer serving on night duty at the time of the collision, which occurred at 4:06 a.m. in the Pacific Ocean about 40 km south of Cape Nojima, Chiba Prefecture. It was determined that the captain, who was taking a nap at the time, the duty-officer on a previous watch team and the officer in charge of the CIC were not responsible for the collision. The verdict also determined that the fact that the Atago was cruising on autopilot and that lookouts on the wings of the bridge went inside the bridge shortly before the collision did not play a role in causing the collision, either.

The verdict said that after receiving a report from the head of the previous watch team that a group of fishing boats near the destroyer were unlikely to pose a danger, the night-duty officer in question did not alert lookouts to the fishing boats or report the existence of the fishing boats to the CIC.

At 4 a.m., the Seitoku Maru approached the Atago on a course that might force it to cut across in front of the destroyer and collide with it. But the officer let the destroyer continue its course, as his attention was drawn to another fishing boat. The CIC did not pay attention to the Seitoku Maru, either.

At 4:05 a.m., the distance between the Atago and the Seitoku Maru was about 900 meters. About a minute later, the light on the fishing boat’s port side was seen to the right of the destroyer. The officer ordered “All stop” and followed with “Full reverse.” But the Atago’s bow hit the middle part of the Seitoku Maru’s port side. The verdict said that under the Law for the Prevention of Collision at Sea, the positions of the Atago and the Seitoku Maru up to seven minutes before the collision required that the Atago take collision-avoidance action.

The verdict has lessons for the MSDF: If the Atago had carefully watched the movement of the group of fishing boats when it saw their lights, it could have taken a different course to avoid a collision. Since the officer saw the fishing boats on a radar screen 10 minutes before the collision, there was enough time and distance. If the CIC had been notified of the fishing boats, radar surveillance could have prevented the collision.

The verdict stresses the importance of each crew member’s safety awareness. It said crew members must fully recognize their and other members’ roles, check whether the roles are properly fulfilled and cover for others’ mistakes. It is imperative that the MSDF and the Defense Ministry instill such an attitude in each MSDF member.

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