Fishing as a Contact Sport

Photo: Oregon Sea Grant

Anyone who has spent time on a boat knows that bumps and bruises are inevitable. You can be standing there minding your own business and the boat gets jostled by a wave.

Next thing you know, you’re banging up against sharp, pointy things or unyielding wood or metal. That’s just a part of being at sea. However, serious injuries can happen when a crew member comes into contact with the vessel, fishing gear, or equipment.

Common injury hazards include getting hit or struck by a moving object, entangling with fishing lines, or caught in a running equipment such as a winch or seafood processing equipment. The working environment on a fishing vessel is never static, not even on the dock.

For instance, a crew member can bump into a vessel structure (e.g., door frame, stairway railing) or fishing gear (e.g., pots, traps). Or get hit by a falling, moving or rolling object like a barrel, fish box or a snapped line. Fishing is truly a contact sport.

The risk of a contact injury increases when crew are dealing with heavy loads, slippery or rolling objects, running machinery, and lack of communication or teamwork. Contact injuries generally happen in the upper extremities including fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders. Such injuries can lead to loss of one or more fingers or even the entire arm.

A team at Oregon State University looking at reported non-fatal injuries in commercial fishermen in the Pacific Northwest from 2000-2018 found the majority of contact injuries were related to hauling and handling gear. 

How can fishermen reduce the “contact sport” aspect of commercial fishing? Think about fishing activities that might increase contact injury risks and consider what you can do to reduce the risk.

Prevention efforts can be based on the hazard type such as fishing gear or processing equipment. For all injuries, have your first aid skills up to date so if injured you can provide initial treatment and ensure a better progress in recovery. 

Consider the following prevention strategies to avoid contact injuries:

  • Practice good communication:
  • Give your crew a heads up. Practice calling or warning before operating equipment or moving any equipment and fishing gear (e.g., nets, pots, traps).
  • Plan your activities and ensure sure crew understand their work tasks.
  • Coordinate work and be aware of what other crew are doing to avoid hitting each other.
  • Perform routine inspections for frayed or worn lines.
  • Practice good housekeeping such as coiling fishing lines to keep deck clear.
  • Navigate your path. Plan your actions and ensure your path is clear.

On vessels where processing happens, crew cut and prepare raw fish for packing. They also handle frozen fish in the freezer hold. Here are some prevention measures to reduce injuries that can happen when fish processors get caught in or contact the equipment.

  • Install enclosures to protect crew from running machines or equipment.
  • Install safety guards to protect hands and fingers.
  • Practice good housekeeping: 
  • Routinely clean up processing equipment to remove debris and prevent malfunction. 
  • Don’t make tall stacks with fish boxes and use lines or other barriers to prevent boxes from falling. 
  • Securely place freezer trays. Routinely clean ice to prevent trays slipping from the freezer racks. 

Nothing can stop fishing from being a contact sport but paying attention to some simple ways to prevent injuries can help.

The Risk Information System for Commercial (RISC) Fishing project at the Oregon State University has been tracking fatal and nonfatal commercial fishing injuries among the Pacific Northwest fisheries. Based on the key findings, several one-page summaries were created to help prevent commercial fishing injuries. Visit the website for more resources: 

By considering your situation and the activities you have planned, you consider the hazards and what you can do to reduce your risk of injury. 

The Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) has a mission is to reduce injury and death in the marine and freshwater environment through education and training provided by a network of marine safety instructors. The Sitka, Alaska-based organization has been offering marine safety training to commercial fishermen and thousands of other mariners since 1985.

More information on marine safety topics can be found at