Commercial boats operated by Vietnamese fishermen have virtually escaped Coast Guard safety inspections in waters off Ventura County, prompting fears by many that the vessels are unprepared for the dangers of the sea.
A review of Coast Guard boarding records for the past three years shows that, of the 135 vessels to undergo the safety checks in Ventura coastal waters, only two were run by Vietnamese fishermen.
The Vietnamese boats make up, by the Coast Guard's estimate, 10% of all commercial vessels in California, but comprise an even higher percentage of those operating out of Ventura County's two harbors.
Many of the fishermen have only been in the United States for five or six years and are willing to endure hazardous conditions to make a living, said John Dzuong Ngyuen, executive director of the Oakland-based Vietnamese Fishermen Assn. of America.
Since the Vietnamese have developed a presence in Ventura County, other local fishermen have asked the Coast Guard to step up safety inspections of the Vietnamese boats. They said the vessels have been excluded from random checks.
"These guys have got boats that are ready to sink at any minute," said James McClelland, whose Ventura-based company salvages stranded and capsized fishing vessels. "They are risking their lives every time they go out on the water."
Coast Guard officials said they did not realize that Vietnamese vessels had somehow slipped through their safety net.
"These statistics surprise me," said Stan Holden, the Coast Guard's fishing vessel safety coordinator. "We will look into it."
At a meeting in June, several Ventura County fishermen told Coast Guard officials that they believed there was a double standard in enforcement of a federal safety law regulating the commercial fishing industry.
The law, passed by Congress in 1989, required the Coast Guard to inspect commercial fishing vessels because accidents were resulting in more than 100 deaths annually. The legislation also required commercial fishermen to carry lifesaving equipment, including a locating beacon, flares and immersion suits.
"We are required to carry all this safety equipment and we get boarded (inspected) pretty regularly," said Ed Lusk, an urchin diver from Channel Island's Harbor. "But when it comes to the Vietnamese, the Coast Guard just has a hands-off policy.
"I don't know of them ever being boarded, and I know they are missing equipment and most of their boats should not be allowed in the water."
During the past three years, several Vietnamese fishing boats operating around the Channel Islands ran aground or broke up on rocks.
In 1991 the Jaime shattered into splinters in the surf while returning from a seven-day trip to Santa Rosa Island. And in July of this year, the 48-foot Pahn Thiet lost power and crumpled over rocks off Santa Barbara Island. The three Vietnamese-American fishermen aboard were rescued when they were hoisted from the water by a Coast Guard helicopter.
Statistics on the total number of Vietnamese boats involved in accidents were not available.
"I would never have a fisherman go out on a boat in the condition that these boats are in," said McClelland, who helped salvage the Jaime off an Oxnard beach. "It's simply not safe."
McClelland said Coast Guard officials told him they avoid inspecting the boats of Vietnamese fishermen because "they don't speak very good English."
But Holden, who works out of the Coast Guard's district office in Long Beach, said that was not possible.
"We absolutely would not avoid a vessel because of a language barrier," Holden said. "And we certainly deny that there was any intentional discrimination on the part of the Coast Guard."
Holden said that, in the past, the Coast Guard has attributed the complaints about selective enforcement to ongoing tension between the local fishermen and the Vietnamese.
"These guys have been here for forty years and all of a sudden they've got competition from a new group of fishermen," Holden said. "There has been tension between the Vietnamese and the other fishermen all over the country. This is nothing new."
But Lusk said racial tension had nothing to do with his complaint.
"My thoughts about this did not come from any problem with the Vietnamese," he said. "I have friends in the Coast Guard that have said word has come down from the top to leave the Vietnamese fishermen alone. I believe (the Coast Guard boarding teams) are under instruction to ignore the Vietnamese boats."
It is a charge which both the boarding officers and Holden deny.
Holden said no such policy exists, but there may be confusion among Coast Guard safety inspectors because of a 1990 lawsuit during which the Coast Guard was temporarily prohibited from boarding the Vietnamese vessels.
In that suit, the Vietnamese Fishermen Assn. of America protested a 200-year-old law which prevented foreigners from operating boats in American coastal waters. Congress eventually amended the law to allow the Vietnamese to continue fishing.
"There may have been some situations where, because of the past lawsuit, (boarding officers) thought they should lay off the Vietnamese," Holden said. "But it is not our policy."
However, a current Coast Guard document detailing boarding procedures states under the bold heading "Exemption" that there is a special set of rules for the Vietnamese that stems from the recent legal battle and subsequent law.
"As a result of this law," the patrol order states, "take no law enforcement action, in relation to laws concerning the ownership and operation of a U.S. flagged fishing vessel, against permanent resident aliens. . . ."
Coast Guard legal officer Robin Barber said the order is not meant to exempt the Vietnamese from safety inspections, it simply explains that the law which forbade non-citizens from fishing in California waters no longer applies to the Vietnamese.
"We certainly would not avoid a vessel just because the operators were Vietnamese," said A. J. White, master chief of the Point Carrew, a Coast Guard cutter based in Channel Islands Harbor. "When it comes to boardings, we don't have any set formula."
But another boarding officer, who asked not to be named, said that, until recently, there was confusion over whether inspections should be conducted on Vietnamese vessels.
"There was the impression that, because of the whole lawsuit, that we should leave these guys alone, but I don't think it happens now," the officer said.
Coast Guard Lt. David Boyd, a legal officer who has conducted at-sea inspections, said that in his experience the Vietnamese would be a more likely target for safety checks because their vessels are generally in poor condition and because they often cannot speak English over the radio.
"Any vessel that is not speaking English to you is automatically suspect," he said.
But he said he believes "erratic" fishing schedules of the Vietnamese fishermen may have contributed to the disparity.
"There is some logic as to why we're not seeing the Vietnamese vessels," Boyd said. The Vietnamese fish in surges, he said. When one boat finds fish, it calls all of the other vessels and they fish as a group. For that reason, he said, it was less likely the Coast Guard would run across the Vietnamese fishermen while on patrol.
Nevertheless, Boyd said fishermen's concerns should not be ignored.
"If they think there is a problem, there probably is something that needs to be addressed," he said. "In this case I think it's primarily an us-versus-them problem, but that should not keep us from looking into it."
The Vietnamese fishermen, however, have preferred to stay out of the debate.
At Ventura Harbor, several of the fishermen said the Coast Guard had not boarded their vessels, but they did not want to be interviewed.
"They have had a very difficult time," said Nguyen, of the Vietnamese fishermen's association. "There is jealousy from the other fishermen who see how they are willing to work long hours and weekends to be successful. There is difficulty with the Coast Guard because of the lawsuit."
Nguyen said the association is encouraging the fishermen to adhere to safety codes.
"We know that many people die every year in fishing accidents and we try to tell the fishermen how to be safe," Nguyen said. "We tell them to cooperate with the Coast Guard.
"We hope that these problems are behind us. If they are not, we hope that they will be behind us soon."