A Brixham-based fishing company has been fined more than £100,000 after a highly modified vessel capsized, causing the deaths of two people onboard.

Laura D Fishing Ltd, a Torquay-based company and the owner of the vessel, pleaded guilty to failing to take all reasonable steps to ensure the ‘Joanna C’ was operated in a safe manner.

The vessel, built in 1980, had previously operated as both a beam and stern trawler before it was rigged as a scallop dredger.

West Hampshire Magistrates Court heard that the Joanna C had undergone a major refit in 2019, including the addition of a whaleback, extension of the wheelhouse and fitting raised bulwarks, all of which affected the stability of the vessel.

The modifications had been carried out without the approval of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the body responsible for maritime regulation and safety.

But despite this, the vessel continued commercial operations.

Early in the morning on November 21, 2020, Robert Morley, Adam Harper and David Bickerstaff were onboard the Joanna C five miles south of Shoreham, when the vessel’s gear snagged on the seabed, causing it to lean heavily to starboard. Because it was unstable, the Joanna C could not recover and rapidly sank.

Out of the three crew members, only Mr Bickerstaff survived.

A team of divers sent to inspect the wreck days later also found that the life-raft had not deployed.

Survey image of Joanna C’s wreck
Survey image of Joanna C’s wreck (MCA)

Laura D Fishing Ltd. was fined £36,000, and ordered to pay £69,284 in costs and a £190 surcharge.

The MCA reminded owners that their vessels must meet the required safety standards despite changes made, to avoid incidents like this happening.

Mark Cam, senior investigator with the MCA, said: “This is a tragic reminder that modifications to vessels should be planned and their effects on the vessel’s stability properly investigated using appropriate professionals.

“Companies are responsible for providing a safe place of work for their employees, wherever that may be. The court has found that Laura D Fishing Ltd. did not take all reasonable steps to operate the Joanna C in a safe manner and this led to the deaths of Adam and Robert.”