Fishing Safer – But Still Deadly

By Margaret Bauman

Capt’n AndrewIn early March, the 57-foot fishing vessel Capt’n Andrew ran aground four miles southeast of King Cove, Alaska, serving as illustration for a new report from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services that finds that commercial fishing continues to be the State of Alaska’s most dangerous occupation. The five crewmembers of the Capt’n Andrew were rescued by good Samaritan fishing vessel Just In Case. US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Dan Buress.

Interventions developed by the Coast Guard in Alaska for stability checks on the Bering Sea crab fleet have helped, but on an overall basis, commercial fishing continues to be the state’s most dangerous occupation, a new report confirms.

According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, 111 people on board commercial fishing vessels lost their lives at sea from 2000 through 2009, down from 202 from 1990 through 1999, but still far ahead of pilot deaths – 47 from 2000-2009, compared to 104 from 1990-1999 – the occupation with the second highest recorded number of deaths at work.

Jennifer Lincoln of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Alaska, noted the importance of the crab boat stability checks, as well as the Capstone program for improving pilots’ situational awareness.

Of the commercial fisheries fatalities, including deaths aboard fish processing vessels at sea, half of the deaths were caused by drowning, followed by the sinking or capsizing of vessels, falls overboard and traumatic injuries onboard, ashore or while diving, the state report said.

The highest number of fatalities – a total of 39 – occurred in the salmon fishery, while the highest fishery-specific fatality rate – 340 fatalities per 100,000 workers per year – occurred in the Bering Sea Aleutian Island freezer trawl fleet, according to statistics gathered by the state.

The report recommends that governmental agencies, industry and non-governmental organizations continue to collaborate to prevent work-related fatalities in Alaska. It also recommends that research be focused on discovering new preventive measures, evaluating their effectiveness and determining how to reduce deaths in the workplace are a subject of national concern, with various entities showing overall success in reducing that total. Figures compiled by the federal Labor Department show that overall workplace injuries dropped to 4,340 in 2009, down from 5,214 injuries the year before,

Still, commercial fishing, a job that employed some 31,000 people nationally last year, remains the most dangerous occupation, with a rate of 200 deaths per 100,000 workers.

Jennifer Lincoln, an injury epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who studies fishing safety issues, has documented that Coast Guard decisions to do safety inspections on crab boats starting in 1999 have had a significant impact on decreasing the loss of lives in that fishery. The Coast Guard inspections determine whether the number and positioning of crab pots, some of which weight 700 to 800 pounds, are safe and whether they are properly loaded aboard the vessels, Lincoln noted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Lincoln and Ted Teske, also of NIOSH, noted at the recent ComFish 2011 gathering at Kodiak that NOISH does a lot of surveillance regarding fatalities in the fishing industry but that NIOSH is not an enforcement agency. The more personal flotation devices are used on the job on fishing vessels, the better the safety factor, they said.

Great efforts have been made over the past few years to improve the design of these personal flotation devices, which have been tested by a number of commercial fish harvesters, so that those on board will wear them on the job.

Lincoln and Teske asked those attending ComFish to ask themselves what kind of a personal flotation device policy exists on their vessel and whether they have found a personal flotation device that works for them.

There are enough personal flotation devices out on the market now to find one that works for you, they told those assembled.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at