The Emmy Rose, outbound from Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts on Sept. 29, 2020. Photo by Robert Serbagi

The sinking of a Portland-based fishing vessel and loss of four crew members in 2020 was likely caused by water flooding through deck hatches that weren’t watertight and didn’t have covers with proper securing mechanisms, according to a new report from federal investigators.

The National Transportation Safety Board also found that two freeing ports, designed to drain water, were closed. That further reduced the Emmy Rose’s stability and caused the vessel to capsize off the coast of Massachusetts in Nov. 2020. The four men on board, three from Maine, were not found and are presumed dead.

In a statement this week, the board said it is recommending that the United States Coast Guard increase the scope of commercial fishing vessel safety examinations to include inspections of a vessel’s freeing port cover design and hatch covers. The board also reiterated an earlier safety recommendation to the Coast Guard to require that all vessel personnel be equipped with personal locator beacons.

That recommendation was issued in 2015 following the sinking of the El Faro, a cargo ship lost at sea near the Bahamas in 2015; and in 2019 after the fishing vessel Scandies Rose sank off the coast of Alaska. All 33 crew members on El Faro died. Five of them – the captain and four crew – were alumni of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, and four were Mainers. Five of the seven crew members on the Scandies Rose were never found.

“It shouldn’t take three marine tragedies to recognize the vital importance of personal locator beacons,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy in the board’s statement. “Given their wide availability and relatively low cost, I urge all fishing vessel operators to provide crewmembers with PLBs today – don’t wait for a mandate from the Coast Guard. If the Emmy Rose crew had access to these devices, perhaps some of them would still be with us today.”

After departing Portland on Nov. 17, 2020, the crew members aboard the 82-foot commercial fishing vessel Emmy Rose fished for five days in the Gulf of Maine. On Nov. 22, the captain, Robert Blethen Jr., notified a seafood distribution facility in Gloucester, Mass., that they had assorted groundfish to offload and expected to arrive the following morning.


A crew member told his girlfriend in a phone call that it was the vessel’s biggest catch, and she told investigators that she heard ebullient crewmembers laughing and enjoying themselves in the background.

Hours later, early on Nov. 23, the Coast Guard in Boston received and responded to a distress signal from the vessel. The Coast Guard searched more than 2,200 square miles over a 38-hour period, but the vessel had sunk, according to the NTSB.

Using side scan sonar, the Emmy Rose was located on May 19, 2021, about 3.5 miles west of its last known position, at a depth of 794 feet. A remotely operated vehicle survey, conducted in September 2021, confirmed the location of the wreckage and examined the vessel for visible damage, according to the board’s statement.

The Emmy Rose was more susceptible to capsize because of its design and modifications, the NTSB said. The vessel was originally built for shrimping in the Gulf of Mexico and was modified for fish trawling in New England waters. Its return course toward Gloucester subjected the vessel to winds and seas that likely resulted in seawater accumulating on the rear deck.

“NTSB investigators found that at the time of the sinking, the Emmy Rose likely did not meet existing stability criteria, making it more susceptible to capsizing,” the agency’s statement said.

The company that owned the Emmy Rose, identified in court documents as Boat Aaron and Melissa Inc., asked a federal court in 2021 to exonerate it or limit its liability for the sinking. David Smith, listed in court records as the attorney for Boat Aaron and Melissa, said Wednesday he hadn’t yet read the NTSB’s report and could not comment on it.


The court filing in 2021 initiated a year-long process of establishing a settlement fund and awarding damages to the families of the victims.

Last January, a judge awarded nearly $1 million in damages to the families of the four fishermen who died, though there was no evidence at the time about why the vessel went down. In addition to Blethen, of Georgetown, the crew included Michael Porper of Gloucester, Mass., Jeffrey Matthews of Portland and Ethan Ward of Pownal.

Joseph Orlando Jr., an attorney for Porper’s estate, said that while the case with the vessel’s owner has been settled, the court could still allow for claims against a third party if they were found to have contributed to the sinking.

Orlando said he is still waiting to receive official responses to public records requests made to the NTSB and Coast Guard before analyzing the possibility of further legal action.

“I think the NTSB recommendation is appropriate,” Orlando said. “We can never have enough safety equipment for those who work in the most dangerous job on earth. But the expense for that safety equipment should be on the vessel owner, not the crew. It’s hard enough in this regulatory environment for the crew to make a living.”

Ann Preble, the partner of Blethen, declined to comment when reached Wednesday. Terrance Duddy, an attorney representing Matthews’ estate, said he had not read the report and that Matthews’ family did not want to comment. Attorneys who represented Ward’s family in the court case did not respond to a phone message or emails.

The NTSB cannot mandate changes and the Coast Guard cannot mandate new requirements without following a federal rule-making process. The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to an email to its media relations department late Wednesday asking if the agency plans to implement the recommendations in the report.

Commercial fishing vessels are required to have an automated emergency beacon that floats free and signals rescuers. But individuals are not currently required to have them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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