A fishing boat captain and two deckhands died in a disastrous Oregon bar crossing. Could it have been prevented? 


Joshua Porter got dressed for his job around 4 a.m. on Jan. 8, 2019, sat down at the end of the bed, buried his face in his hands and told his longtime partner he didn’t want to go.

He was scared.

A storm was brewing off the Oregon coast, where the Mary B II would be competing with dozens of other fishing boats in the first days of the Dungeness crab fishing season. In the handful of days he had worked on the Mary B II, Porter had become concerned.

The 50-year-old captain, Stephen Biernacki, new to the Pacific Northwest’s waters, repeatedly refused advice from experienced sailors, had once ran his boat aground and seemed to be unfamiliar with the most elementary aspects of fishing for crab.

“Well, why are you going?” Denise Barrett Ramirez, standing in the bedroom doorway of their Toledo home, asked him that morning.

“Got bills to pay,” Porter replied. “I have to go.”

Porter’s body washed up on the beach the next day. The entire crew — Biernacki, Porter and a second deckhand, James Lacey — drowned after the Mary B II capsized in a failed attempt to cross the Yaquina Bay bar.

After a five-year investigation, the U.S. Coast Guard announced the capsizing was primarily Biernacki’s fault. Biernacki was not only inexperienced with the bay’s treacherous conditions, he was high on methamphetamine.

But the effective absence of any oversight of captains and crew on most fishing boats also contributed to the deaths, the Coast Guard found.

The Coast Guard recommended stricter regulations, including that a national advisory committee on fishing vessel safety consider rules to mandate licensing and drug and alcohol testing for captains of all fishing boats. The tests and licensing are now required only for captains of large commercial fishing boats.

But the advisory committee, which reports to the secretary of Homeland Security, ultimately rejected all the recommendations for additional oversight, citing the potential cost for the industry, which brought in about $231 million in revenue in Oregon in 2022.

“Had a requirement been in place for the operator to be credentialed and had the operator survived, there would have been evidence of negligence and misconduct,” the Coast Guard wrote. “The operator of the MARY B II was not fit for duty due to impairment by drug and alcohol use.”

In the U.S., anyone can be a captain on all but the largest fishing vessels. There is no license or certification required for smaller fishing boats that the Coast Guard could revoke.

“Kind of like the cowboy on the open range, they’re seen as a last vestige of freedom when they’re out there doing their fishing,” said James Spitzer, a retired Coast Guard captain who helped author a seminal report on fishing vessel safety in 1999.

“[But] there should be some level of competency and knowledge of everybody that’s working on a fishing vessel,” Spitzer told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The U.S. is an outlier in this respect. In Canada and Australia, captains must get certified and pass a medical test. In the United Kingdom, all captains must take a series of training courses, including “basic sea survival,” with additional requirements depending on the size of the boat.

Federal law does require crews on all vessels to practice emergency procedures monthly, led by someone trained to perform the drills. But the law doesn’t call for paperwork to prove the drills have been completed.

Efforts to change have been stymied for decades by industry claims that mandatory licensing, regular alcohol and drug testing and other rules could do more harm to the fishing industry than good. Even efforts that successfully made their way through Congress — such as laws passed in 2010 and 2012 for increased training — haven’t been put into effect.

At least six people have gone missing or died off the Oregon coast in three commercial fishing accidents since the Mary B II sank, Coast Guard data shows.

‘We called him Wacky Biernacki’

Porter, 50, was a veteran fisherman who first worked on a fishing boat when he was 14. By 2018, he had captained multiple boats and was a deckhand on many more.

Porter split his time between the Newport area, Washington state and California, traveling with Ramirez.

When the couple returned to Newport late in 2018 ahead of the Dungeness-crabbing season, after squid fishing in California and then spending the holidays in Washington, Porter struggled to find work.

Usually people working on Dungeness-crab boats secure a place for themselves by working for free for several weeks before the season starts, helping get the gear and boat ready. Porter missed that window because of his holiday trip, arriving back in Newport in late December, about a week before the season began.

One day, Porter was standing outside a storage unit in the unincorporated community of South Beach when he started chatting with a man who said he had a spot for a deckhand on his fishing boat.

That man was Stephen Biernacki.

Biernacki was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey, and started to fish off the Atlantic coast when he was 16. By his late 20s he had been a captain on multiple boats.

Thomas Florczak, who worked for him for about four years in the 1990s, said Biernacki was “a loose cannon” and was known to drink at sea. Worse yet, Biernacki would turn off the radio when the conditions were turning bad, so the crew wouldn’t hear the weather warnings over the radio and insist they turn for shore.

“We called him ‘Wacky Biernacki,’” because of his drinking and impulsive behavior, Florczak told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

In 1997, Biernacki was captain of the Lori L and was on his way back to port in New Jersey from a 14-day fishing trip when he switched on the boat’s autopilot and went to sleep without ensuring someone would keep watch. The boat struck sand hours later, the Coast Guard wrote in its report on the accident.

Five years later, Biernacki was the captain of another fishing boat when, off the South Carolina coast, he and his three crew members drank a case of beer and a bottle of rum and started arguing, according to the Coast Guard’s summary of events. One of the crew said he didn’t feel safe on board and tried to use the radio to call for help, but Biernacki unhooked the radio and took it into his cabin. That crew member activated an emergency beacon, prompting Coast Guard rescuers to board the boat.

Biernacki continued to fish, even as he began to increasingly struggle with alcohol.

One month after writing in a Feb. 26, 2014, Facebook post that he had gone to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Biernacki drove drunk with a 1.75-liter bottle of Odesse vodka in his pickup truck, according to a police report of his arrest.

He rear-ended a police car in New Egg Harbor Township in New Jersey, threatened to kill the officer who took him to jail, then attacked him, according to the report. A background check at the time revealed Biernacki had been arrested 21 times in four states.

Biernacki moved to Newport in 2018, according to the Coast Guard’s report.

That summer, he was hired to captain the Ranger fishing boat. On his first day, a call went out on the radio from a female deckhand that sounded like she was requesting help, then the transmission abruptly cut off. The boat’s owner, on shore, tried to reach Biernacki, but he didn’t answer. Instead of returning to port, Biernacki “intentionally headed further out to sea and did not return to port until he sobered up,” the Coast Guard wrote.

The owner never talked to Biernacki again.

That October, Biernacki’s mother bought her son the Bess Chet, a 42-foot, 62-year-old wooden fishing boat, and renamed it the Mary B II. By this point, Biernacki’s California driver’s license had been “permanently suspended,” the Coast Guard later found.

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with this guy’

By the end of December in 2018, Biernacki had to get a crew together fast. Fishers were allowed to drop crabbing pots Jan. 1, and they could start pulling them in on Jan. 4. Oregon’s Dungeness fishery is highly competitive, and the small boats, like the Mary B II, often had a tough time competing with the big ones.

Biernacki had one crew member so far — James Lacey, a man he knew from New Jersey. Biernacki was looking for a second deckhand when he came across Porter outside the storage unit on Dec. 30. Porter said yes to Biernacki’s job offer, but he agreed to only a brief stint — he had been offered another job on a different boat starting Jan. 9, Ramirez told Coast Guard investigators.

Porter soon recognized something familiar in Biernacki’s affect. Like Biernacki, he had struggled with substance use. But he managed to pull out of it years before.

At 20, Porter got his first DUI conviction. In 2001, soon after moving to Newport from Washington, he was arrested after allegedly breaking into a trailer and trying to cook methamphetamine. Porter went sober in 2007 and soon became a respected figure in the Newport area’s recovery community.

Chris Gifford said he remembers going to one of his first recovery meetings, in Siletz, and immediately being impressed by Porter’s honesty when he shared his story. They became close friends, Gifford said. Porter was such a reliable support for so many people, Gifford said, that people would joke that the bracelets they wore with the acronym WWJD, an acronym for “What Would Jesus Do?” actually stood for “What Would Josh Do?”

Porter, who was divorced with four children, also met Ramirez at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, in 2008.

Even before he stepped onto the Mary B II, Porter was worried about what he’d gotten himself into. Early on Jan. 1, Biernacki insisted on going out to set pots, and Porter, before heading out the door, told Ramirez it didn’t make sense — because of the tides.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with this guy,” he said to Ramirez. “If we wait two more hours, it’ll be fine.”

“Did you say anything?” she asked.

“He won’t listen to me,” Porter replied. He overruled his own worries and headed for the dock.

Things only got worse from there, Ramirez told investigators.

That same day, Porter’s first trip with Biernacki, the Mary B II ran aground in the harbor. When they did get out to sea to drop pots, Porter said he was “embarrassed” because the buoy lines were incorrectly attached to the crab pots and he had to fix them before dropping the pots into the water.

They headed back out to sea several days later. Porter arrived at the dock by 5 a.m., the time they had agreed upon, but Biernacki made him and the other deckhand, Lacey, wait until after 6 a.m. so he could buy alcohol for the trip.

‘Show these guys how it’s done’

The next day, Porter walked out the door of his home around 4 a.m. and drove his Ford pickup truck to Newport.

Before heading out to sea, Porter, Biernacki and Lacey stopped by a seafood wholesaler to buy 10 boxes of sardines for bait. People at the shop later said Biernacki was talking very fast and seemed aggressive. They asked him why he was going out to fish when all the other boats and ships were coming into port because of the weather forecast.

“(I’m) going to show these guys how it’s done,” Biernacki replied, according to a summary of investigators’ interviews with staff at Newport’s Seawater Seafood Co.

The National Weather Service that morning warned of gale-force winds starting at 4 p.m., with gusts as fast as 40 mph. Waves were forecast to reach up to 23 feet.

As the Mary B II fished for crab, the ocean was getting increasingly choppy, and more and more fishing boats were heading into port. By around 7 p.m., waves were hitting 14 feet, far higher than usual.

Oregon’s bars can be especially hazardous, because that’s where the deep water of the Pacific Ocean meets the shallower waters of a bay. The interaction of the two, especially during a storm, can create large, powerful waves.

The fishing boat The Last Straw was the last of a series of boats to cross the bar as the storm developed that night.

“I desperately want to get in,” The Last Straw’s captain told the Coast Guard in a radio transmission at 7:32 p.m., according to a Coast Guard transcript of that night’s transmissions. “It’s building fast out there, that’s why I’m motivated to get in.”

The Coast Guard shot flares into the air to help the captain stay between the north and south jetties, and it maneuvered one of its boats behind The Last Straw to help break the larger waves coming toward the fishing boat. The Last Straw crossed the bar just before 8 p.m.

The Coast Guard noted one remaining boat and was trying to figure out who it was.

“He’s an East Coast feller,” The Last Straw’s captain told the Coast Guard. “He hasn’t got much experience here. Hardly any.”

Around 9:30 p.m., the Mary B II finally was heading back to Yaquina Bay. The Coast Guard was waiting.

The Coast Guard crew on the two boats shot flares into the sky to light up the water so they could assess wave “sets.” Waves come in patterns; they wanted to figure out the timing so the Mary B II would go at full speed across the bar during a lull in the waves.

“All right, we’re putting on our life jackets on here before we cross,” Biernacki said across the radio.

By around 9:50 p.m., the Coast Guard crews counted a four-minute lull between sets of large waves. When a lull began, the Mary B II started across the bar. But it was going only two knots, far too slow to get across before the larger waves resumed. It’s unclear why the boat was going so slow, but the Mary B II crew had earlier noted a crab line stuck in the propeller.

“16-footer building up behind you, captain,” the skipper of the Coast Guard boat Victory said over the radio. “Mary B, this is the set right here; this is the set, over.”

“Yeah, roger, roger, I see it,” Biernacki replied.

“You’re looking like you’re heading very, very far north right now. You might want to come south just a little bit,” a crew member of the other Coast Guard boat said over the radio at 10:06 p.m. “Did you copy my last?”

The situation quickly turned dire as the fishing boat veered north.

“Come south! Come to starboard! Come to starboard!” the Victory’s captain shouted into the radio. “Mary B, come to starboard.”

It was too late. The Mary B II had strayed from the center of the channel toward the notoriously perilous north jetty and was hit by a series of three waves, ending in an 18-foot wave that hit the boat head-on and capsized it.

A Coast Guard helicopter pulled Lacey out of the water. He died at a hospital. Porter’s body was found on the beach north of the jetties early the following morning. The boat’s wheelhouse was found washed up on the beach as well, with Biernacki’s body inside.

‘The only prerequisite’

Investigators concluded Biernacki had methamphetamine and alcohol in his system, was unfamiliar with the Yaquina Bay bar and refused advice or help from those who did have experience maneuvering a boat across the bar during a storm.

Had Biernacki survived the accident, the Coast Guard would have referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for potential prosecution, according to its report, released Dec. 28, 2023.

“By operating the vessel impaired by drugs and alcohol and in a negligent manner, (Biernacki) endangered the vessel, the lives of everyone on board, the environment and the safety of the Coast Guard and other first responders,” the Coast Guard wrote.

In April, the National Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee voted against the recommendations proposed by the Coast Guard in its report on the Mary B II’s deadly capsizing.

The committee — an 18-member panel with 10 members of the commercial fishing industry, three government representatives, an equipment manufacturer, a training professional, a naval architect, an underwriter and a vessel owner — cited the financial burden such requirements would create for boat owners and captains.

The committee also noted a 52% decline in fishing deaths over several decades, “demonstrating the effectiveness of the current safety measures in industry practices.”

It was only the latest failed effort to put in place mandatory licensing for all commercial fishing vessel captains.

Licensing requirements established by an international agreement ratified in 1938 exclude all but the largest fishing boats.

In 1941, a bill that would have required many fishing-boat captains to be licensed was defeated in Congress. In subsequent decades, regulators focused on mandating safety equipment on board, as opposed to licensing.

“The only prerequisite for working on a commercial fishing vessel of less than 200 gross tons is a willingness to step on board,” the Coast Guard Fishing Vessel Casualty Task Force wrote in the major 1999 safety report.

“This is one of the most disturbing aspects of commercial fishing,” the report said. “Lack of experience and training, and poor judgment can, has, and will continue to cost fishermen their lives.”

The Mary B II investigative report suggested that the Coast Guard review the 25-year-old report and put in place all of its recommendations, requiring that captains be licensed and tested for drugs and alcohol.

By the end of 2019, the year the Mary B II capsized, Porter’s partner, his mother and his four children were awarded $209,000 by the boat’s insurance company in compensation for his death.

In a letter filed with the court in December of that year, Ramirez asked the judge to speed up the probate case so that the money could be disbursed.

“Since Josh’s death,” she wrote, “the bills have been piling up.”

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