Less fatalities, more safety for Alaska’s commercial fishing industry

Commercial fisherman Ryan Fry sets up crab pots outside the F/V Farrar Sea in Unalaska. (Photo by Annie Ropeik/KUCB)
Commercial fisherman Ryan Fry sets up crab pots outside the F/V Farrar Sea in Unalaska. (Photo by Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

Commercial fishing in Alaska was once known as one of the deadliest professions. It’s still pretty dangerous, but the number of fatalities each year is trending downward.

The U.S. Coast Guard announced in October that over a recent yearlong period, not one commercial fisherman had perished at sea while working.

The Coast Guard says that’s the first time the industry has had a spotless record. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that in the 1980s, an average of 31 fishermen died at sea each year. But starting in the 1990s, the number of commercial fishing deaths started declining, by 67 percent from 1991 to 1999.

And between the first of October 2014 and Sept. 30 of 2015, there was not one casualty, according to Coast Guard data. That’s even including the six commercial fishing boats that sank last summer; all crew members were rescued.

A Coast Guard fishing vessel safety expert, Scott Wilwert, says safer management practices have made all the difference.

Once derby-style halibut and crab fisheries were done away with, the death toll diminished. Instead, crab rationalization and fishing quotas – or IFQs – meant the fishing wasn’t packed into short openings with hundreds jockeying to catch the most fish in overcrowded grounds.

And, new policies were put in place, directing the Coast Guard to conduct inspections before fleets left port.

“The crab fleet out in the Bering Sea has the reputation as the deadliest catch. And reality, real reality, is that hasn’t been since 1999,” Ted Teske of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said. “Prior to 1999 there was an average of eight fatalities a year in the fishery. Then in the 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard started doing dockside stability checks before the boats left the dock. And just like flipping a switch, they went from an average of eight fatalities a year to less than one a year.

Teske is a NIOSH health communications specialist.   He and Samantha Case, a NIOSH researcher based in Anchorage, visited Dutch Harbor in October to survey fishermen about current use of life jackets, or PFDs.

“Anecdotally, it seems like more guys are wearing life jackets, at least in this fleet in Dutch Harbor,” Teske said. “Man overboard fatalities are the second leading cause of death among commercial fishermen nationwide. Of the over 500 fishermen that have died from falls overboard since 2000, not a single one of them was wearing a life jacket when they drown.”

Teske and Case said it seems these days more fishermen are wearing PFDs.

“If you look at what is actually the cause of death when you fall in cold water, a lot of people say, oh, you’re going to die from hypothermia. But really what gets you long before hypothermia is what they called swimming failure. Where basically the water is so cold that your body is trying to keep your organs and your brain warm and so it’s moving all the blood out of your extremities and you lose the ability to tread water,” Teske said. “So if you can float, if you can float you don’t have to worry about that at all. And it takes actually a long time for you to slip into a hypothermic condition. That can take a half-hour to an hour or more, which is plenty of time for the vessel to spin around and come grab you, if they know you are in the water and you are floating.”

The decline in commercial fishery deaths can also be attributed to improvements in PFD design, making them less bulky and difficult to work in.

Click here to see the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s recent article on the decrease in commercial fishermen fatalities.