Five Unions Press Charges Against Fishing Company following COVID Outbreak On Board

Júlíus Geirmundsson

Five unions are joining forces to press charged against a captain and fishing company for keeping a crew of 25 at sea for three weeks despite a COVID-19 outbreak on board, RÚV reports. Twenty-three of the 25 crew members became infected by the novel coronavirus in the outbreak, many developing serious symptoms. The ship stayed out at sea for several weeks contrary to guidelines from authorities and many ill crew members kept working.

The five unions are pressing charges against the captain of the freezer trawler Júlíus Geirmundsson, on which the incident occurred, as well as against the fishing company that runs the ship, Hraðfrystihúsið Gunnvör. The unions are also asking the Westfjords District Court to order a so-called “maritime inquiry” (sjópróf), a type of formal investigation conducted on incidents at sea. The purpose of such an inquiry is to determine the causes of the event in question and whether the shipowner, captain, or crew were criminally liable.

Read More: Fishing Company Under Fire for Keeping COVID-19 Infected Crew at Sea

“This is really a request for a police investigation of the case to the Westfjords Chief of Police and a request to the District Court to conduct a maritime inquiry on the case to find out what really happened on board and why and if necessary who is responsible,” stated Valmundur Valmundsson, chairman of one of the unions.

Karl Ingi Vilbergsson, Chief of Westfjords Police, stated yesterday that his aim was to finish interviewing all general crew members that day. The investigation’s next steps would be decided after that. He told reporters: “This is a grave matter and I don’t think we can live with it any other way than by getting to the bottom of it.”

The five unions are Verkalýðsfélag Vestfirðinga, Sjómannafélag Íslands, Félag skippersmanna, Félag vélstjóra og máltæknimanna, and Sjómannasamband Íslands.

The CEO of Hraðfyrstihúsið Gunnvör has responded to the incident, with a statement and interview that have been called contradictory.

“No one knew about this COVID thing,” says CEO of Company that Kept Sick Fishermen at Sea

Júlíus Geirmundsson

The CEO of a seafood company that kept COVID-infected fishermen at sea for three weeks has responded to public criticism with a statement and interview that leaves more questions than answers. Twenty-two of 25 crew members on one of the company’s ships contracted COVID-19 shortly after setting out to sea. The company has been under fire for not bringing the ship to harbour even after the crew began to exhibit symptoms and contrary to advice from doctors.

One crew member that was on the ship described the conditions in an interview with press. After the crew was informed about the first illness on board, he stated, a few sick crew members were isolated in cabins. Others were asked to continue working, even with severe symptoms. When the ship finally returned to harbour three weeks later, it was not for the purpose of testing crew members, rather principally due to bad weather.

Read More: Fishing Company Under Fire for Keeping COVID-Infected Crew at Sea

Hraðfrystihúsið Gunnvör released a statement yesterday regarding the COVID outbreak on their ship Júlíus Geirmundsson. The statement, sent to Icelandic media outlets in Word document format, had many puzzling aspects to it: though it was sent out in the name of the company’s CEO Einar Valur Kristjánsson, Microsoft Word metadata cited the author as Fisheries Iceland Director Heiðrún Lind Marteinsdóttir.

Einar Valur’s statements in an interview with Vísir also seemed contradictory. Though he admitted the company “underestimated the conditions on board,” he also stated that “This is new. No one knew about this COVID thing. We didn’t know what it was. And this is, just as I say, the first COVID that comes into our company.” When the reporter pointed out that the incident occurred recently, many months after the SARS-CoV-2 virus arrived in Iceland, Einar’s response was that he had “listened to many episodes with the Chief Epidemiologist and this is of course unprecedented. We didn’t know [COVID] before and we are struggling with it. We are not looking for any culprits, rather apologising for not reacting differently.”

Einar was also questioned about the ship captain, who reportedly isolated crew members together in cabins for up to three days. He responded that it was “not possible to explain that. It would have been correct to return to harbour but this is just what happened.” Einar stated that the company was reviewing its regulations and what went wrong in the decision-making process. He denied that crew members were forbidden from contacting the press, saying there were internet and phone service onboard the ship.

Fishing Company under Fire for Keeping COVID-19-Infected Crew at Sea for Three Weeks

Júlíus Geirmundsson

Test results show that 22 out of 25 shipmates on freezer trawler Júlíus Geirmundsson contracted COVID-19 while out at sea. The ship’s management is currently under fire for not calling the ship to harbour when crew members started showing symptoms, despite repeated requests from doctors. The Federation of Icelandic Seamen’s Unions has issued a statement condemning the ship’s owners’ failure to follow guidelines for discovering the disease at sea.

Despite crew members developing flu-like symptoms one by one, Júlíus Geirmundsson didn’t return to harbour until it needed to refuel last Sunday, after three weeks at sea. During refuelling, the crew was tested for COVID-19 but left again for the fishing grounds before the results were in. They returned as soon as it was discovered that the majority of the crew had contracted COVID-19. While some have recovered and tested positively for COVID-19 antibodies, others are still in isolation and the three who did not contract COVID-19 have to go into quarantine.

A statement on the Gunnvör Freezing Plant’s website yesterday read: “The company would like to state that soon after flu-like symptoms were discovered among the crew, the Westfjord Healthcare Institute was contacted. It was concluded that there was no reason to call the ship to harbour at that time. After fishing for three weeks, it became clear (following crew testing) that there were COVID-19 infections aboard and the ship was immediately returned to harbour. In light of the knowledge we now have, the ship should have been called to harbour, and the whole crew tested sooner.”

The declaration didn’t appease critics, as some interpret it to suggest the tour got a green light from doctors to continue fishing. Hákon Blöndal, the ship’s first engineer, called out the fishing company’s explanation on Facebook, employing salty language to call the declaration an attempt to bury their misconduct and spread misinformation. “This isn’t the whole story, and people have to grow a pair and admit their mistakes,” says Hákon.“If a suspected COVID-19 infection comes up, the captain should contact the Coast Guard so they can decide the next steps. In this case, correct work processes weren’t followed; the crew didn’t get the benefit of the doubt and was put at great risk!” When Vísir contacted Sveinn Geir Arnarsson, captain of Júlíus Geirmundsson, he declined to comment.

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason was asked about the incident during yesterday’s information briefing. He wasn’t up to date with the exact details of the matter but stated that when an illness comes up at sea, the right reaction is to return to harbour and be tested. If that had been done immediately, perhaps some infections could have been avoided.

Súsanna Björg Ástvaldsdóttir is a doctor with the Westfjords Healthcare Institute and the regional epidemiologist. She told Mannlíf that her instructions always have been and always will be to go in and get tested, no matter where you are in the world. “I can confirm that that’s the communication that occurred between the fishing company and me, early on in the tour. My instructions are very simple.”

The Federation of Icelandic Seamen’s Unions issued a statement saying that considering the regional epidemiologist’s account of how her repeated requests that the boat return to harbour were ignored, the fishing company’s response shows disdain for their crew. “The company seems to have only been thinking of its financial gain, with no regard for the health and welfare of their grew. The Icelandic Seamen’s Federation condemns the disdain the company showed the ship’s crew by continuing fishing despite the sickness onboard.” They state in no uncertain terms that they consider the fishing company to have gone against best practices during pandemic times, ending their statement so: “The Federation of Icelandic Seamen’s Unions demands that Icelandic fishing companies follow guidelines on response to infections onboard to the letter and that they don’t put the lives and wellbeing of their crew at unnecessary risk during these dangerous times.”