PORTLAND, Ore. -- The captain of a crabbing vessel that sank in high waves, killing him and two other fishermen, had methamphetamine and alcohol in his system, according to testimony Monday at the opening of a five-day U.S. Coast Guard hearing.
Stephen Biernacki, 50, and crew members James Lacey, 48, of South Toms River, New Jersey, and Joshua Porter, 50, of Toledo, Oregon, all died Jan. 8 after their 42-foot crabbing boat was battered by waves up to 20 feet (6 meters) tall as it crossed the Yaquina Bar near Newport, Oregon, during the lucrative but fickle Dungeness crab season.
Toxicology tests found cannabis in Lacey's system; Porter had no drugs or alcohol in his body when he died, according to results shared at the hearing, which was streamed live from Newport, Oregon.
The bar — where the Yaquina River meets the ocean current — can be so treacherous that the dangers of crossing it with a fully loaded crab boat were the premise of a spin-off of the "The Deadliest Catch," a reality TV show about commercial fishermen that aired on the Discovery channel.
The first day of the five-day hearing focused on Biernacki and included remarks from local residents who had spoken with him before the accident, as well as lengthy testimony from an Oregon State Police trooper who talked to him at the docks sometime before the fateful trip.
Senior Trooper Heather Van Meter testified that Biernacki seemed "impaired" and had slurred speech and bloodshot eyes — but she added it was common for fishermen to work to the point of exhaustion.
"The fleet will push themselves in the weather, the fleet will push themselves even if they haven't slept for days and days and days," she said. "They're going to push themselves ... because they need to make a living and they have families. They need to get out."
The Coast Guard said Mary B II faced waves of 14 to 16 feet (4 to 5 meters), with some breakers as tall as 20 feet (6 meters) as it tried to enter the safety of Yaquina Bay.
The man who sold Biernacki the boat testified that he had tried to explain the area's dangerous conditions to Biernacki, who had recently moved to Oregon from New Jersey.
"I sensed the lack of experience and respect for local West Coast conditions in my talking with him," Clint Funderburg said during the hearing.
"Going through the boat, I could sense he didn't understand the local bars and crossings and it concerned me at the time."
Van Meter testified that the owner of a local seafood restaurant had encountered Biernacki before he headed out and later told Van Meter that he "had some impairment."
"He was concerned that the boat was going to go back out and fish because the weather was going to turn pretty bad," she recalled. "He didn't think it was a good idea for a boat of that size to go back and asked him if he had checked weather conditions."
The accident happened as crabbers were rushing to try to catch up after the Dungeness crab season in Oregon was delayed more than a month.
Dungeness crabs are a staple of the holidays for many on the West Coast and three-quarters of the harvest is typically brought in in the first eight weeks of the season, which usually runs from December to August.
In Oregon, last year's haul was worth more than $74 million at the docks and pumped $150 million into the state and local economy.
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Information from: KGW-TV, http://www.kgw.com/