Does Not Compute

A letter, below, gives a real-life, firsthand account of the perils of the new electronically controlled marine diesels being mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency for installation in fishing boats. In his Toolbox column this month, David Rowland gives his own firsthand account of the process involved in holding a sea trial of a boat with one of these engines. A counterpoint is offered by a paper published recently by Alaska Sea Grant entitled, Does Diesel Have a Future in the Fishing Industry?

The piece, authored by Greg Fisk, owner of SeaFisk Consulting, suggests several alternatives to petroleum diesel, including nuclear power and hydrogen or electric propulsion, and offers biodiesel as another alternative, including diesel made from algae. Unfortunately, admits Mr. Fisk, none of these alternatives have much likelihood of viability. His conclusion suggests that EPA-mandated low-sulphur petroleum diesel will be the most likely short-term solution, so to answer the paper’s title question, yes. This puts us back where we started, with unelected political appointees deciding the fate of the US fishing fleet.

Given the safety issues posed by the sudden failure of a main propulsion engine while at sea, do we really want a computer making the final decision on whether or not to shut down? Do we really want the EPA mandating these engines for use in fishing vessels?

Are Computer Controlled Diesel Engines Safe?
In June 2009 we installed a new diesel engine in our 48-foot commercial fishing vessel. This engine performed well in the first Albacore tuna season and through the first Dungeness crab season. It had greater fuel efficiency, was quieter, and we felt we were doing our part to have cleaner air.

However, on my son’s second Albacore tuna trip of 2010 the engine shut down when he was about 80 miles off shore. Finding that a fuse had blown on the computer power circuit he replaced the fuse and restarted the engine, which ran for about 30 minutes and shut down again. He once again replaced the fuse with a 20-amp fuse and it ran the rest of the day. The next morning when he started the engine it ran for about 30 seconds and shut down. He replaced the fuse with another 20-amp fuse and it blew as soon as the boat was put in gear. He replaced the fuse with a 10-amp fuse, which blew as soon as he turned on the switch. He waited 10 minutes and replaced the fuse again. The engine started and he was able to run home to Warrenton, Oregon.

We lost 2 Albacore trips during the time it took to have the problem analyzed and acquire the parts to fix it.

Fortunately our local electrician had diagnosed the same type of problem on a charter boat from the Warrenton area. He found that a faulty oil pressure gauge had caused the problem. He replaced the gauge on our vessel and my son made another Albacore trip without incident.

Since that time I have learned of 3 other vessels that have had problems with the main engine shutting down. The charter boat required a new gauge. A tuna boat required a new computer. An oyster dredge’s problem was caused by a bad ground.

It is my opinion that the main engine should NEVER shut itself down. That should only be done by the operator. If an engine’s computer can shut the engine down then there must be an emergency backup to enable the restart of that engine even if it is only for half power or some other speed.

As these computers, their components and the wiring to them age, these problems will happen at an ever-increasing rate.

Our boat for the most part fishes Dungeness crab as a day boat, which means we may make 150 to 200 bar crossings a year. Engine shutdown on an unfriendly or savage bar crossing could have very serious consequences.

Al Gann
Warrenton, Oregon