Coast Guard Ends Illegal Use of ‘Paper Captains’ in Washington-Based Tuna Fishing

U.S. Coast Guard officials, having detected eight separate “paper captain” violations in the commercial tuna fishing vessels operating out of Washington state in summer months, have halted the use of illegal foreign nationals in that fleet.

‘Paper captain” is a term applied to an individual listed on documents as the captain of a U.S.-flagged vessel when in fact the individual is a deckhand or working in a similar lower-level capacity. Federal laws dictate that these vessels be under the command of a U.S. citizen.

The Coast Guard said that in fact many fishing vessels have engaged in a pattern and practice of hiring foreign nationals to serve as captains on American commercial fishing vessels, while U.S. nationals identified on paper as captains serve in subordinate roles.

Since 2019, Coast Guard personnel working collaboratively with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and law enforcement teams with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have detected eight separate “paper captain” violations at work in the Pacific Northwest. Many of these violations have been supplemented by underlying fraudulent documents designed to avoid detection and mask the illegal operation, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard said that the conspirators listed the “paper” captain on their notices of arrival/departure submitted to the Coast Guard and CBP and produced fraudulent fishing agreement contracts to the Coast Guard. Providing fraudulent documents to any federal agency, including the Coast Guard, is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years.

To date, one Washington-based fishing fleet has paid $9,150 in civil penalties, and also been cited for $140,000 in additional penalties still pending adjudication.