Trawler that sank losing two crew was understaffed, court hears

A fishing boat from the North which sank with the loss of two crew was short staffed, a court heard today.

Skipper Conrad Zych (aged 28) pleaded guilty to manslaughter after his colleagues drowned in the Irish Sea near Ardglass, Co Down.

His barrister Eugene Grant told Belfast Crown Court the defendant left the wheel to help process the prawn catch in January 2006 because he was a man down.

"It is quite clear that the crew of three was effectively an under-staffing of the boat," he said.

In the winter, the boat would normally have a crew of four. He said two regulars had left suddenly without notice.

The Greenhill trawler, 30 years old, sank minutes after hitting rocks in stormy weather.

The body of Donal Gibson (aged 22) was found. Connor Bogues (aged 26) is still missing.

Mr Grant added: "Crew shortage is directly a reflection of the enormous social and economic pressures on the industry in recent years."

He said during the last decade the number of fishermen had halved, with rising fuel costs and reduced fishing quotas cutting profit margins.

Zych, married and from the Downpatrick Road in Ardglass, has pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter.

The court today heard interventions from lawyers before he is sentenced later this week.

He survived by clinging to a life raft, which took some time to inflate and was upside down. His two friends, one of whose mothers gave evidence on his behalf, were unable to hold on.

None of the men were wearing life jackets despite the bad weather. The practice of leaving the ship with nobody at the helm had become common because of manning pressures, fishing experts have warned in the past.

The boat was approaching harbour when it hit the rocks and was 600m from the coast.

Mr Grant said his client thought he was further out and took too long to help his crew.

Prosecuting barrister Gordon Kerr said: "This is a serious breach given the inherent dangers which are obvious to all those who are skippers of vessels, the nature of accidents that can occur when approaching an entrance to a harbour which is known to have dangerous areas around it and the weather conditions are worsening.

"Given the fact that there's a clear statutory obligation to keep a look out on the vessel we submit it could only be described as a serious breach."

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