Commercial fishing remains one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation, with a fatality rate that is 23 times higher than for all other workers.
Vessel sinkings account for half of all fishing fatalities; second is falling overboard — deaths that are largely preventable.
From 2000 through 2016, 204 U.S. fishermen died after falling overboard, according to a recently released study called “Fatal Falls Overboard in Commercial Fishing” by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Nearly 60 percent of the falls were not witnessed, and almost 90 percent of the victims were not found.
In all instances, not a single fisherman was wearing a PFD (personal flotation device).
“I think there is a social stigma against it. It’s a sort of macho thing. I also think there is a lack of awareness that there are really comfortable PFDs,” said Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association for over three decades.
Today’s life jackets are not the bulky, cumbersome clunkers that most people are familiar with from childhood or have stashed in the cubbies of recreational boats. Newer models are lightweight and built right into rain bibs, or fit comfortably over or into deck gear.
“I’ve got a couple that are so comfortable that when I leave my boat, I forget I have them on,” Dzugan said.
He estimated that less than 10 percent of Alaska fishermen wear PFDs while working, whereas “a few years ago it was less than five percent.”
According to the NIOSH report, the number of falls overboard decreased on average by 3.9 percent annually during the study’s time frame. Most falls occurred on the east coast (62), followed by the Gulf of Mexico (60). Alaska ranked third with 51 deaths overall.
Alaska’s deadliest catch might surprise you – it’s the salmon drift gillnet fishery with 16 fatalities.
“When things go south on a small open boat it happens quickly,” Dzugan said. “Swamping, being hit by a wave and not being able to recover. Sometimes they are fishing alone or with just two people, often in open waters. All of those combine to have those being a particularly high risk.”
Dzugan believes wearing a PFD on deck is the number one way that fishermen can save themselves from becoming a statistic. Second is doing onboard safety drills.
“Everyone needs to know what to do in the case of an emergency. And every crew member needs to be part of the risk assessment on the boat, not just the captain,” he said. “Also, make sure your boat is watertight, keep your survival gear maintained and practice with it, and get enough sleep.”
The NIOSH report also recommends reducing fall hazards on deck and using man overboard alarms and recovery devices.
“It costs less than $100 to rig up your own floating lines to trap someone inside and tie them off to a cleat on the rail until you can get them back on the boat,” Dzugan said.
Although fishermen have been somewhat slow to adopt preventive measures, he said there has been tremendous improvement in Alaska.
“It’s been a total cultural change. In the 1970s there was an average of about 38-40 fishing deaths a year in Alaska; it’s averaged 3.5 over the past five years,” he said. “The arc of improvement in fishing vessel safety has been a long one, but it’s been steadily upwards. I’m very optimistic.”
The fatality numbers already have skewed upwards since the data in the NIOSH report were compiled through 2016. Total U.S. fishing deaths have risen to 224, according to report author, Samantha Case of NIOSH in Anchorage. In Alaska, there were 10 fishing deaths in 2017; six were from the sinking of the crab boat Destination in the Bering Sea.
Alaska’s salmon season officially kicks off on May 17 with a 12-hour opener for sockeyes and kings at the Copper River.
In other fishing updates: Southeast fishery managers announced that under provisions of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the Chinook salmon harvest is limited to 130,000 fish for all users, down 80,000 fish from last year. For trollers, the take is 95,700 kings and the May/June season will open only in a few select areas.
Fishing for lingcod in the Panhandle opens May 16 with a 310,700 catch limit.
A fishery for coonstripe and spot shrimp opened in Southeast on May 1 with a 675,000 pound quota from four districts.
Trawling for sidestripe shrimp also is underway at Prince William Sound with a nearly 113,000 pound catch quota.
Norton Sound’s red king crab fishery closed on April 30 just shy of the 50,000 pound winter harvest. The shortage will be added to the summer crab fishery for a combined total of about 300,000 pounds.
Alaska’s halibut catch was approaching 3 million pounds with Seward and Sitka leading all ports for deliveries. Sablefish catches topped 4 million pounds with Sitka in the lead for landings.
Fishing continues for all kinds of whitefish in both the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
Finally, Frankenfish is a step closer to U.S. supermarket sales. AquaBounty, the producer of the genetically engineered salmon won FDA approval last week to grow the fish in an Indiana plant it bought last year for $14 million with a goal to produce three million pounds annually. Currently, the salmon are being grown out in Panama.
A final hold up is commerce laws that don’t allow the genetically tweaked salmon to be sold in the U.S. until labeling guidelines are in place to inform consumers.
“Made in America” grants are available to small and medium-sized companies that have been clobbered by an influx of cheaper imports.
“Basically, if it’s a product that competes with imports and the domestic firm is losing ground and the imports are rising, the assistance can be available,” said David Holbert, executive director of the Seattle-based Northwest Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (NWTAAC).
The NWTAAC is one of 11 regional non-profits funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration and serves companies in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. The group has been around since the 1970s, but is not very well known, Holbert said. It began as a means to help U.S. manufacturers facing competitive disadvantages often caused by global trade deals. The program now includes businesses in other sectors, such as timber, agriculture and fishing.
The program offers matching grants of up to $75,000 to mid-sized companies aimed at helping them hire outside expertise to boost their bottom lines.
“So that’s $150,000 for projects such as website building and creating marketing tools like brochures, brands and logos, as well as quality certifications, product design, to name a few. No two are the same,” Holbert explained.
Eligible smaller businesses with less than $1 million in sales can receive up to 75 percent in matching funds for up to $30,000, meaning their output would be $7,500.
“When a company faces destructive price competition, it’s a situation where they can’t win by trying harder. They have to change. For small to medium-sized enterprises, change is often instigated by outside expertise. Generally speaking, the companies have to find their way to a customer base that values quality customization and/or rapid fulfillments,” Holbert explained.
Eligible companies need to show a drop in employment and in sales or production and other trade criteria. The Center handles all the qualifying paperwork and if approved, also helps craft a business plan focusing on what would be required for the company to succeed. A company has five years to use the funds.
“The companies select their projects and vendors. We’re not telling anyone what to do or who to hire. We’ll advise and help, but it’s your solution to your situation,” Holbert stressed.
For smaller Alaska fishing companies, more than one can apply under the umbrella of a trade association. Bering Sea crabbers, for example, long hammered by imports of Russian crab, used funds to redesign a website, create marketing materials and design a weekly newsletter.
“The support and guidance provided by NWTAAC staff throughout the entire funding process was amazing,” wrote the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers trade group. Other Alaska fishing beneficiaries include Taku Fisheries in Juneau and Fields Wild Salmon of Kodiak.
Holbert said that Alaska halibut fishermen, who are facing stiff import competition from eastern Canada, also may be eligible.
“Don’t be shy about calling. You’re not dealing with a big bureaucracy; you’re going to talk to a person who can relate to you and your business,” Holbert stressed. “If you’ve got a decline in business in recent years and you believe it’s due to imports, we can find out fast if you qualify.”
• Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally.