Safety – Attitude is Everything
Even though commercial fishing has become less risky over the last decades, it still remains one of the most dangerous ways to pursue a living.
"Fatality rates have dropped 75 percent since the 1980's," said Jerry Dzugan, executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. "In the early 80's we had around 40 fatalities every year in Alaska waters – in the last five years that number has dropped to less than 10."
The difference between then and now is the industry-wide emphasis on safety and the numerous tools, technologies, training programs and processes that have been developed to make the commercial pursuit of the sea's bounty less risky for mariners and crews – yet every year brings deaths and injuries that could have been prevented.
A total of 624 US commercial fishermen lost their lives to a variety of work-related accidents between 2000 and 2012, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Out of that number, 188 deaths were due to falling overboard. "No fishermen were wearing Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), and many were within minutes of being rescued when they lost their strength, sank below the surface, and drowned. Those deaths could likely have been prevented if the fishermen had been wearing a PFD," according to NIOSH.
A Coast Guard survey reports that commercial fishermen have positive thoughts about PFDs, but don't regularly wear them (except trawlers). The report states that the fishermen surveyed wear PFDs 65% of the time while working on deck. In most fisheries this percentage is far lower.
"Fatalities have been relatively flat over the last ten years," said Dzugan. "There is an increasing number of men overboard, and some of them are not wearing a PFD because it is 'too uncomfortable', which is just an excuse these days with the new PFD's that are highly wearable. It's just a matter of attitude."
Dzugan says attitude is everything when it comes to safety and staying alive. "It affects how well you maintain your boat, whether you get extra training beyond the mandated minimum, if you decide to get a man overboard recovery device, your deck decisions, trip planning, your weather decisions, everything.
"If you wait until you are faced with an emergency to figure out how to get out of the problem and deploy your safety and rescue gear, you are more likely to end up with someone injured or dead."
Dzugan tells of two separate occasions when "minimal gear" attitudes on the part of owners and skippers put lives in danger, and one man died.
"In one case, a man went overboard close to a rocky shore," he said. "The skipper of another vessel was able to grab him by the shoulders and lift him partially up, but the rail was too high to lift him over. There was no man overboard recovery device of any kind on the boat.
"The skipper had to let the victim go and steer the boat away from the rocks. By the time he came back around, it was too late.
"In another case, the man overboard was a guy who weighed 280 pounds. He fell off a salmon troller. Again, there was no device to help lift him back onboard. It took another troller with a skiff and three other people to finally get him out of the water and to safety."
Dzugan says the Coast Guard's Lesson Learned reports are full of examples where a less than vigilant attitude led to disaster and deaths.
The sinking of the F/V Katmai is an example of how a less than totally vigilant attitude about the vessel's equipment, systems and procedures contributed to a disaster and lives lost at sea. The Lesson Learned study was published in the Spring 2012 edition of the Coast Guard Journal of Safety and Security at Sea.
"In the morning hours of October 22, 2008, the F/V Katmai sank into the icy-cold waters of the Bering Sea, claiming the lives of seven crew members aboard. This tragedy may have been avoided if the captain and crew had practiced sound judgment, communicated more clearly with one another, and followed safety protocol."
The following are but a few of the instances contributing to the disaster that were cited by the report.
"The captain asked the engineer to try to transfer fuel from port to starboard in an attempt to correct the list, but the engineer found the fuel transfer pump was not working properly. According to the captain, although there was a cross-connect between the fuel tanks, a transfer was only possible by using the fuel transfer pump. A later review of the vessel's fuel piping schematic showed that four valves would have had to be manually opened to allow fuel to pass from one tank to the other.
"The vessel's watertight doors were not visible from the pilothouse, nor were they equipped with audible or visual alarms or indicators that would have alerted the captain to their status.
"Immersion suits were not specifically assigned to crewmembers. Testimony indicated that immersion suit drills consisted of only one suit used to train the entire crew, which may have prevented them from learning which size suit would best fit them in case of an emergency. It is essential that fishing crews know the correct size for their bodies and understand that different manufacturers have different size specifications.
"The vessel was issued a requirement to conduct drills for the US Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment before departing Dutch Harbor for the fishing grounds. No associated activity in the Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement database indicates that this requirement was cleared.
"There was a two-to-three-foot crack in a horizontal seam weld of the starboard bulkhead in the processing space. The crack had been temporarily repaired with silicone, with no evidence suggesting that a permanent repair had been made.
"Upon the conclusion of the review of the record and report of the casualty, it was determined that the primary casual factors leading to the casualty were:
• irresponsible voyage planning considering the forecasted weather conditions
• failure to maintain watertight boundaries
• overloading of the vessel's cargo hold
• exposure to heavy wind and high seas."
Numerous changes in regulations and procedures were recommended by the Coast Guard as a result of the Katmai tragedy.
"It doesn't matter whether it's engineering solutions, gear, training, awareness, or new regulations and their enforcement," said Dzugan. "If the captain and crew do not have a safety first attitude, accidents will be more likely to turn into tragedies. The Coast Guard is not on deck with that crewman at night who decides his PDF is too uncomfortable, it's all up to that person's attitude whether they are safe or not."
Eric Jordan is one captain with an all safety, all the time attitude who is happy to tell anyone who will listen about the benefits of spending a little extra time and money to make his boat as safe as possible. Jordan trolls for salmon out of Sitka on the 38 foot F/V I Gotta.
"Safety is totally about attitude," said Jordan. "It's about putting safety ahead of the bottom line, it's about getting enough rest, about looking out for each other and the equipment.
"I weigh 300 pounds, and have a bad knee, arthritis and a bad elbow. Attention to rest safety and ergonomics is what allows me to keep going. It also ensures I have good help – all my crew comes to me by word of mouth. Your rep as a skipper is revealed in your attitude to doing everything right and safely. Even newcomers recognize who they want to go out to sea with."