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Critics chide Coast Guard for failure to secure unmanned fishing vessel after crabber’s death

The boat that was left adrift when Bodega Bay crabber Ryan Kozlowski fell overboard could have been saved, his friends say. Coast Guard officials, however, dispute their claim.|

Nearly a week after commercial fisherman Ryan Kozlowski’s boat was found adrift after he apparently fell overboard, the loss of his vessel remains a highly contentious part of the tragedy.

Several commercial and sport crabbers who were out on the water when his empty boat, the Seastar, was found on the morning of Feb. 25 converged in the area off the Point Reyes National Seashore, including at least three who said they offered to secure or tow his boat.

But they said they were told by Coast Guard personnel on site and by phone that the boat would not be allowed to run aground.

They can’t understand why it ultimately did.

“Whoever’s in charge, I don’t know how they sleep at night,” said one of the crabbers, Chris Zito. “They could have thrown out the anchor. They were on it.”

Scott Bertelsen, who had remained in port, handling communication for Kozlowski’s family, and Joe Thornburgh, who responded to the Seastar upon hearing his fellow fisherman was missing, were among those who received such assurances.

Thornburgh said he was told not to board the boat because of the investigation into its owner’s death. Though his own boat isn’t large enough to tow the Seastar back to port in Bodega Bay, “I could have towed it farther out until someone else could,” he said.

“There were plenty of people around for it to be avoidable,” Zito said.

The Coast Guard, in a news release, said the Seastar was on the rocks near a landmark known as Elephant Rock during the initial response, when a 47-foot rescue lifeboat arrived and personnel boarded Kozlowski’s vessel to look for him.

The decision was made not to tow it for fear the boat could be damaged and cause a pollution spill in the waters of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, the Coast Guard said.

SeastarReleasePDF.pdf

A Coast Guard spokesman said additional factors included concerns that Kozlowski might have become entangled in gear connected to the boat and the subsequent focus on active search and rescue efforts.

The spokesman, Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Giles, said that by the time a second Coast Guard vessel was launched to tow the Seastar, it had run aground on Kehoe Beach, where it broke apart.

But members of the fishing community dispute both accounts.

They say the boat was in about 126 feet (21 fathoms) of water when it was found and that the search for Kozlowski moved beyond the immediate vicinity of his boat with plenty of time to still left to tie it up, anchor it or tow it.

The search operation, which eventually involved a Sonoma County sheriff’s vessel, as well as two Coast Guard aircraft and a lifeboat, lasted more than three hours before a crew overhead spotted a body in the water, authorities said.

Even after that, the search was considered active during the time it took to get the boat crew to the site and the body delivered to the county coroner’s representative in Bodega Bay and, eventually, identified, Giles said.

The mission was not refocused until that was completed, he said. “We prioritize saving lives before property,” he said.

For Kozlowski’s friends and family, though, the boat represents a sentimental and a potential financial loss, at least until they know how the insurance settles out.

The state Office of Spill Prevention and Recovery, a division of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, sent personnel last weekend to drain diesel fuel and other petroleum products from the vessel. An “undetermined amount” of diesel fuel was discharged from one of the tanks that became compromised, but no observed impacts to wildlife were observed, the agency said.

The beach remains closed until further notice while the vessel itself is being dismantled and hauled away, funded by Kozlowski’s insurance company.

But his family remains unclear how this will affect insurance recovery for the loss of the boat.

“Thirty years old, and to lose him it’s, heartbreaking,” said friend Tal Roseberry. “And then, top it if off, it’s just salt in the wound to have this boat on the beach and his family having to deal with that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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