The importance of vessel maintenance and safety preparedness may be best driven home by federal data that show an average of 43 people die each year in commercial fishing incidents, half of which occur after a vessel disaster.
These disasters are sometimes unpreventable, but experts say that making safety and vessel maintenance a top priority when preparing for the upcoming fishing season can enable crews to better handle emergencies.
Regular maintenance also can help prevent costly repairs that may put vessels out of commission when there’s money to be made.
Figures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) tracking trends in U.S. commercial fishing fatalities from 2000 to 2019 show commercial fishermen experience work-related fatalities at a rate over 40 times higher than the average worker. Alaska and the West Coast combined accounted for 42% of the fatalities in those NIOSH figures.
It’s a dangerous job that can be made more so by being unprepared. U.S. Coast Guard data from the 2022 annual Commercial Vessel Compliance domestic report shows that out of an estimated 35,000 commercial fishing vessels in service, the most prevalent inspection deficiencies are for equipment or practices related to life-saving, navigation, documentation, communications and firefighting.
There’s a lot to do, and a lot to miss when getting a vessel ready for sea. Safety and mechanical check lists on commercial vessels are extensive, making it easy to miss marking off a few boxes when taking care of pre-season maintenance, said Leann Cyr, executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.
According to Cyr, vessel operators on average get most, but not all, the necessary vessel service steps done before the fishing season starts.
“They might have like 80%, but then you just have to hope that what got missed is not going to cause a major emergency that you can’t respond to,” she cautioned.
Cyr suggests checking the U.S. Coast Guard’s Commercial Fishing Vessel Checklist Generator (http://tinyurl.com/5h43bp24) for equipment and items required onboard. Crew members also should be trained and drilled in the operation of the vessel and its safety equipment. Cyr advised having the crew take an AMSEA Drill Conductor Training course (http://tinyurl.com/4vx5f2u5).
Her other tips include ensuring freeing ports are cleared, bilge pumps work and damage control equipment is accessible. Lastly, she advised hauling out vessels to check for and repair potential weaknesses.
Some of the most overlooked to-do steps can affect vessel stability, which was of particular concern for Cyr.
“I think one thing that can be overlooked is the importance of preparing your vessel stability, so making sure that your hatches are able to be secured, that you know what’s going on in your tanks,” she stated. “That’s a really major cause of vessel disasters—issues related to stability—and I think that’s one thing that a lot of fishermen don’t make that connection that they should, knowing to include that in their preseason preparation.”
Boat repair, construction and refit outfit Marine Group Boat Works said that it performs about two dozen emergency haul-outs each year. Some of those out-of-water experiences were preventable, according to Tim Cooper, director of business development for the San Diego-based shipyard.
“We’ve seen everything from bent props to noise and vibration issues to customers who’ve simply delayed their maintenance and paid for it later,” Cooper said. “You don’t want to be stuck in a vulnerable spot where you’re at the whim of the shipyard’s schedule, competing with other vessels.”
“So, the sooner you get your vessel serviced,” he remarked, “the better prepared for the season you’ll be.”
Cooper also suggested operators can help save on costs and ensure a safe season by rotating valve handles to help prevent freezing, as well as looking for salt creep or signs of corrosion around the valves and flanges to verify there is no underlying evidence of potential issues.
Also of help: applying grease to all grease points (seals, cylinders and even valves) and making sure all safety equipment is serviced and updated in accordance with U.S. Coast Guard and manufacturer recommendations.
Failure to perform even minor maintenance steps while a vessel is already out of the water during the off-season can have a big financial impact on operators, Cooper cautioned.
For example, if a seal fails while a ship is in the water during the season, the haul-out cost plus the repair could potentially run from $10,000 to $25,000 depending on the vessel size, he noted. That financial hit doesn’t include revenue losses due to lost fishing time.
“That’s a cost that they wouldn’t have incurred if they had done it at the proper time,” he remarked.
According to Cooper, an emergency haul-out can cost vessel operators between one and six weeks of downtime depending on the problem and availability of parts.
Checking valves before fishing season starts is a common tip from experts.
Doug Dixon, general manager of Pacific Fishermen Shipyard in Seattle, puts inspecting bilge check valves on top of his list of pre-season practices.
The valve is hidden in piping, so operators tend to pay it little attention and there’s no indicator connected to the valve. The valve can deteriorate badly in only a year or two, resulting in backflow through the check valve and potential flooding, according to Dixon.
“Almost all of the crab boats and RSW boats have a T-valve offline for emergency bilge suction off those big two or three craft pumps that are there to help them if they ever need to get saved, so that’s a situation where you could lose the boat if that thing starts to leak,” Dixon explained.
“You don’t normally know whether or not it’s a problem; it only becomes a problem when you’re in a certain condition,” he said.
Jack Wall, president of Al Larson Boat Shop in Los Angeles, said greasing shaft bearings is a simple step that can prevent a big financial loss. Wall remarked that he has too often seen the results of failing to perform this crucial maintenance before the season starts.
“That is one thing that they need to do on a very regular basis. If not, then you have bearings that will wear out, and right in the middle of the fishing season,” Wall said.
Wall, who also advises operators to have vessels inspected in dry dock each year, has seen some let scheduled maintenance backup, hoping to save money and time. However, avoiding that maintenance often leads to situations that involve far more money and time.
“Then all of a sudden they have a problem and then it becomes a lot more costly,” he said. “I think maintenance is probably the No. 1 thing that any commercial (operator) has to do.”
Taking steps to prevent expensive repairs and monetary losses from in-season downtime are essential, but experts emphasized to Fishermen’s News that maintenance also achieves the purpose of improving safety—it can sometimes help keep people aboard alive and well. There are no dollar signs that can be attached to preventing injuries or death.
According to NIOSH figures from 2000-19, commercial fishing fatalities in the U.S. broke down as follows:
- East Coast—288, or 33% of the total.
- Alaska—236, or 27%.
- Gulf of Mexico—201, or 23%.
- West Coast—141, or 16%.
- Hawaii/Pacific—12, or 1%.
NIOSH lists “Fatal Vessel Disaster” as the most common cause of deaths in the U.S. fishing industry, accounting for 47% of the total 878 reported fatalities. Falls overboard (30%), onboard fatalities (14%), diving fatalities (5%) and onshore fatalities (4%) round out the list.
Don Jergler has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years, covering insurance, real estate and more. He spent two decades as a reporter at several daily newspapers, then entered business-to-business reporting. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Post, Orange County Register and numerous B2B publications. He’s currently the Western Region editor of Insurance Journal.