Fishermen Beware

Posted Sept. 24, 2010, at 7:45 p.m.

Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. The Northeast is among the most dangerous regions, topped only by Alaska.

So says a recent report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It lists 504 commercial fishing deaths in 2000 to 2009, half of them after a vessel disaster and nearly one-third after a fall overboard. The Northeast accounted for 116 of the deaths, with shellfish harvester deaths the most common.

Maine’s lobstermen thus are engaged in one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. Eighteen of them are reported to have died from 2000 to 2009, most of them from falling overboard. Mary Davis, an assistant professor at Tufts University’s Department of Urban Environmental Policy and Planning and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maine’s School of Economics, has found in interviews that many Maine fishermen are not adequately trained. She said that 40 percent of Maine vessels engaged in near-shore commercial fishing are violating one or more safety regulations. She said many captains don’t understand how to use safety gear properly and that the equipment is often broken. Sixteen percent of fishermen she interviewed said they didn’t know how to swim.

The institute, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, calls for “additional prevention measures tailored to specific high-risk fisheries and focusing on prevention of vessel disasters and falls overboard.”

Of the national total of 155 crew members who died from falling overboard, not one was wearing a life jacket or “personal flotation device (PFD),” as they are now called. The report said one-third of the falls overboard were caused by trips or slips, a quarter by losing balance and 16 percent by gear entanglement. More than half of the fishermen who died when they fell overboard had been alone on deck.

According to boating safety websites, when the bodies of fisherman are found, their pants are often unzipped, suggesting they had been urinating over the side of a boat and lost their balance. A seaman’s rule says to use one hand for holding on, but it usually takes two hands to zip up the fly.

The report says that although fishing deaths have been declining gradually since 1992, fishermen should wear improved life preservers that are incorporated into work clothes. The Coast Guard recommends that fishing crews always wear such devices when at sea, even though crew members are not required by law to wear a PFD while working on deck.

The government report says that persons fishing alone should use safety devices that can stop the engine if they fall overboard. Another precaution would be to wear a tether that can be snapped to a stay or jack line.

And all should remember the rule: “One hand for the boat.”

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