Imperfect Storm

The dangers of commercial fishing run deep.

Maybe you’ve seen the T-shirt: “A bad day of fishing is better than a good day of work.” But what about when a bad day of fishing is a bad day of work, as it is for the estimated 38,000 men and women who fish commercially in the United States? The Department of Labor is uncertain of the actual number of those in the industry because of the seasonal nature of the work and the fact that two out of three are self-employed, but the department does know that the ranks are dwindling, and it expects employment in the industry to ebb further, rapidly. It also knows that even with fewer fishermen in the workforce, the industry’s fatality rate is consistently among the highest of all U.S. occupations. In 2006, it averaged nearly one death each week.

Among the ever-present perils commercial fishing crews face are the heavy equipment with moving parts used in all kinds of weather, some of it making for seriously unstable environments, and slippery decks that can lead to serious injuries or falling overboard. Drowning due to the loss of a vessel is the industry’s leading cause of fatality. Powerful winches, cables, ropes, nets, and other gear can malfunction and either cut or entangle workers, swinging blocks can hit them in the head, and rogue waves can pack a punch, sometimes leaving workers asea. Often the work involves long, erratic hours, sometimes over the course of weeks, making sleep deprivation an issue, and jobs can take place hundreds of miles from shore with no help readily available.

“Just think of a large logging crane, and now imagine that crane being on a rocking boat, and that’s what handling fishing gear is like,” says Doug Gregory, a Sea Grant extension agent based in Monroe County with the University of Florida. “You’ve got all this tension on the cables or rope, and then you’ve got the boat and the equipment rocking back and forth, jumping up and down, depending on the weather. It’s tremendous strain on the systems.”

Risk Pool
Even with all the ambient hazards, though, Gregory notes that the industry’s high fatality statistics represent the national picture and don’t necessarily tell the whole story. In general, the Pacific Ocean is rougher than the Atlantic, and, examined regionally, the Pacific northwest and Alaska coasts annually claim the most lives. The Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch,” which documents crab fishing off the Alaska Peninsula in the Bering Sea, depicts “an extreme,” he adds, by way of example. “If they tried to do a TV show about lobster fishing in the Florida Keys, everybody would say ‘ho-hum.’We have relatively mild weather down here, except when we have a hurricane.”

Mike Plotnick, a research analyst with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, says that while the industry in his state does routinely offer high drama, even king crab fishers are sometimes forced to wait out bad weather. “Commercial fishing in Alaska is work in one of the world’s harshest environments,” he says. “Cold water and icing on the vessels make it a long day. Issues such as fatigue and physical stress are normal and always there. Usually, there’s also financial pressure to go out there.”

Angling for Safety
According to Gregory, it was the sinking of an Alaskan crab boat and the ensuing investigation that led, two decades ago, to the industry’s first law aimed at improving its safety record. Passed by Congress in 1988, the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act requires boats to carry life rafts, survival suits, fire extinguishers, alerting and locating equipment, and other gear designed to improve survivability in the event of an accident. U.S. Coast Guard officials, the Act’s primary enforcers, say it has definitely helped. In Alaska, USCG implemented the Dockside Enforcement Program in 1999, which further decreased the state’s leading fatality statistics.

Jack Giard, president of the Washington Reef Net Owners Association, has commercially fished the waters off Lopez Island in the Puget Sound since 1958 and been an active participant in the industry’s evolution. “When I first started, it was a pretty primitive fishery,” he says. “We didn’t have electric winches.We didn’t have a lot of things on there that would cause a boat to go right to the bottom.”

Federal fleet-reduction programs, heavy regulation on catches, and high business costs in general have contributed to shrinking the commercial fishing workforce, but the industry remains a dynamic and important one for the nation, as Giard notes. “There are not too many guys who can afford to stay in it, which is too bad because we love what we do and it’s unique in the world— there’s no other thing like it,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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