It’s well known at this point that several American industries have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on personal freedom and movement implemented by the federal and state governments across the U.S. This is true even at sea, where crews of all sorts of private vessels are placed at higher risks than land-based professions.
Because of that, all segments of the maritime sector of commerce have responded to the pandemic in one way or another, prompting a new period of safety training and policymaking focused on addressing the impacts of infectious diseases and ailments that are spread through close proximity human-to-human interactions.
One of the occupations requiring such interactions is commercial fishing, which even before the pandemic was already one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. In Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, the economic impact of commercial fishing is notable and could be upended by safety issues that shouldn’t be overlooked. During this time, the COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of complications when aiming to ensure the highest possible level of safety for crews.
Well before the pandemic, commercial fishing’s industrial fatality rate was at least 29 times higher than the national average, based on data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an agency of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NIOSH maintains the Commercial Fishing Incident Database that covers fatalities in the industry.
The database’s most recent data on fatalities shows that between the years 2000 and 2015, 725 fishermen died while fishing within U.S. boundaries.
Half of these fatalities, 354, occurred after a vessel disaster. A total of 221 of the fatalities were cases of man overboard; 87 resulted from an injury onboard the vessel, and 63 occurred while diving or from onshore injuries.
The reported data related to the COVID pandemic isn’t openly known, despite the risks of close-contact infection.
Navigating the Pandemic
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the wellbeing of mariners in all seafaring industries has been a crucial component of global safety. Groups such as the United Nations and the International Maritime Organization have the leaders of the world’s seafaring nations to support crew changes and do everything possible to curtail the pandemic’s spread.
The commercial fishing sector is no exception. NIOSH relies on CDC guidance for vessels originating and operating in the U.S. These guidelines cover, generally, crew change and disembarkation with a focus on the spread of COVID-19 and its rate of infection and mortality among crews.
In the latest high-profile public awareness push, the nonprofit Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) has said that it intends to implement a national vaccination promotion drive through the autumn of 2021 with the goal of encouraging commercial fishermen to get vaccinated against COVID.
AMSEA Executive Director Jerry Dzugan said that the public campaign is entitled “Catch Fish, Not COVID,” and that it will provide fishermen with access to accurate and scientifically vetted information about vaccine safety and the overall risks of COVID.
The campaign emphasizes the importance of fishermen getting vaccinated in order to protect the health of crews and operators. NIOSH is supporting the program.
“COVID-19 can sicken a crew for weeks and lead to long-term health problems, limiting their ability to fish,” said Dzugan in a statement to the magazine National Fisherman. “It’s critical that fishermen get vaccinated in order to safeguard their livelihoods.”
However, the pandemic requires a stronger response than a vaccine drive. During an exclusive interview with Fishermen’s News, Dzugan said the pandemic has impacted AMSEA’s ability to even conduct training.
“COVID has deeply affected our business,” he said. “We are down 50% to 75% in our training. Realistically, next year we see another year of uncertainly in training due to the pandemic and we will continue to be nimble and responsive to the needs of mariners in terms of training, especially those in the commercial fishing industry.”
Simply put, AMSEA as an industry training organization will be unable to reach out to the audiences required to ensure that there is safety compliance and standardization.
Dzugan said that there is currently “no new curriculum or programs…for next year.”
“Rather, we will be focusing on providing some online learning tools in ergonomics,” he explained. “I imagine that next year in the first half will still force us to provide specialized Zoom-type workshops as different mariner groups and agencies request these and provide more learning tools and models for our existing in-person classes.”
Overall, training programs are still taking place with limited contact between students and instructors. Julie Keim of Seattle-area based maritime training school Compass Courses told Fishermen’s News that her organization is expecting 2022 to be a year of focus on the pandemic. Many safety program providers ultimately will be forced to include on-board infectious disease training as a standard.
She said that her organization is “reaching out to uninspected fishing vessels that fish off Oregon, Washington and Alaska and exposing them to our five-day Basic Training course,” in addition to more specialized training programs for crews and operators.
Commercial Fishing During COVID
Safety training focused on infectious disease response onboard and among tightly compacted crews is further influencing training. However, the state of training depends on policy related to fighting the ongoing pandemic with all the necessary tools in the policymaking toolbox.
Upon review, the entirety of the commercial fishing industry has supported policy and legislation that prioritizes safety and the rights of crew members. A coalition group consisting of the Washington, DC-based national commercial fishing organization Seafood Harvesters of America and several other national and regional trade associations has previously voiced support for amending the CDC guidance of the time to be adjusted based on feedback of commercial fishermen.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, as well as other elected officials, have lobbied the CDC to implement equitable and practical guidelines that apply to crews of commercial fishing vessels.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the commercial fishing industry has responded in a myriad of ways including implementing strict quarantine and testing requirements in order to keep captains and crew safe,” said Leigh Habegger, executive director of the Seafood Harvesters of America, in a joint statement thanking the senators for their advocacy on the issue.
“We urge the CDC to work with the commercial fishing industry,” she wrote, “so the agency can better understand our concerns and develop smart, practical guidelines that reflect the operational needs of our vessels and the current science.”