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Updated: November 16, 2021

A year after sinking of Maine fishing boat, lawsuits near ruling — but questions remain

transom of fishing vessel with name "emmy rose" viewed in green water Courtesy / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution A photograph released last week shows the stern of the fishing vessel Emmy Rose, on the sea floor off Provincetown, Mass.

Next Tuesday makes exactly one year since a Portland-ported fishing boat, the Emmy Rose, sank off the coast of Massachusetts, with all four crew now presumed dead.

Also potentially within days, a federal judge is expected to rule in a case involving lawsuits by the crewmen’s families.

The Emmy Rose, an 82-foot groundfish dragger, sank in the early morning of Nov. 23, 2020, about 25 miles northeast of Provincetown, Mass. There was no distress call from the vessel, only a signal at 1:30 a.m. from the boat’s emergency radio beacon, a device that automatically activates when a boat founders.

After responding and combing more than 2,200 square miles of sea — about the size of Delaware — the U.S. Coast Guard ended its search for survivors the next day. Lost aboard the Emmy Rose were the vessel’s captain, Robert Blethen Jr., of Georgetown; Jeffrey Matthews, of Portland; Michael Porper, of Gloucester, Mass.; and Ethan Ward, of Pownal.

None of the crew were ever found, and no cause has yet been determined for the sinking.

fishing boat with green hull
Courtesy / Boat Aaron & Melissa
Fishing vessel Emmy Rose, home-ported in Maine, sank Nov. 23, 2020.

However, in May a team led by the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board used side-scan radar to locate the Emmy Rose, lying upright on the sea floor under 800 feet of water. In September, investigators surveyed the ship with a remotely operated vehicle, and took photos and video to aid in the search for a cause.

Those photos were released last week, and the NTSB said the investigation is continuing. Its length is not unusual. The deadly 1991 sinking of the fishing vessel Andrea Gail, which became the subject of the book and movie titled "The Perfect Storm," resulted in an investigation lasting over two years.

Legal settlement looms

Ashore in Maine, the owner of the Emmy Rose in January asked a federal judge for exoneration from any legal liability over the sinking.

Boat Aaron & Melissa Inc., based in Westbrook and owned by Bartley McNeel and Rink Varian, claimed the vessel was “seaworthy, tight, staunch, strong and fit,” according to the filing in the U.S. District Court for Maine.

Such a request is standard in maritime disasters. An 1851 law limits the total liability of vessel owners for a casualty to the value of the vessel after the casualty occurs. Ship owners often invoke the law proactively to shield themselves from claims that may later arise.

The families of each crew member have responded to the request for liability limitation, with personal representatives for Blethen, Matthews, Porper and Ward disputing the claims of Boat Aaron & Melissa and seeking unspecified damages. Since February, the case has been working its way through the legal system, as dozens of motions, filings and orders have been introduced.

Grainy image of fishing boat, viewed from above, on ocean floor
Courtesy / MIND Technology
Side-scan sonar in May captured this image of the Emmy Rose on the sea floor.

By July, however, representatives for the four men had worked out a tentative agreement, in which the heirs would share a $1 million settlement from the insurance policy on the Emmy Rose. That amount would be reduced by the cost of attorneys’ fees, and allotted according to factors such as ages of the heirs, who together comprise six minor children and three adults.

The joint agreement was filed with the court last month. If approved by Judge John Woodcock, the settlement would protect the Emmy Rose owners from any further liability claims.

Attorneys for the estates of the four crew and for the vessel owners declined to discuss details of the case with Mainebiz on Monday. But Stephen Koerting, who represents the estate of Matthews, said a decision “could come at any time.”

“The current stage is similar to waiting for a jury to return from deliberations,” he said.

Meanwhile, the fishing community and many people in Maine and nationwide have responded to the tragedy. A crowdfunding campaign organized last year by Rosalee Varian, daughter of co-owner Rink Varian, has also raised $133,000 to aid the families of the fishermen who died.

On Tuesday, Rosalee Varian said, “On behalf of the Varian family we would like to send our continued thoughts and prayers to the individuals who lost a  loved one during the tragedy … We would also like to thank the community for their ongoing support. To see the amount of people who care and are eager to help has been extremely heartwarming.

“This will be a loss that is felt forever.”

Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association, also commented on the approaching one-year mark: "Fishing is unfortunately one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States and this sad anniversary is a stark reminder of the risks fishermen take to support their families, their communities, and help feed all of us."

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