Deadliest catch turns out to be Gulf of Mexico shrimp

Hal Bernton | The Seattle Times
STEVE RINGMAN / The Seattle Times archive via The Associated Press

SEATTLE -- America's deadliest catch?

Forget about those crabs that crawl around on the bottom of the Bering Sea.

It's the shrimp that inhabit the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

During the past decade, 55 fishermen have perished in pursuit of these southern crustaceans, according to a first-of-its-kind federal study that ranks fishermen's deaths in the nation's seafood harvests. That's compared with a death toll of 12 Bering Sea crabbers during the same time period.

"I am shocked," said Buddy Guindon, a veteran Texas shrimper, when informed of the study results. "It certainly doesn't get near as rough down here as it does up there."

Guindon said the shrimp fishery has evolved into a grueling derby where hundreds of vessels -- large and small -- compete for shares of the catch, and where crews sometimes work well past the point of exhaustion.

Crew members may lose their balance and pitch overboard in storms that generate nasty, choppy waves. Or, they might get tangled in gear and dragged overboard, their absence unnoticed by other crew members until much later.

Such deaths typically don't grab many newspaper headlines -- but over the past decade they accounted for more than half of the fatalities in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp harvest, according to the study by the Alaska office of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. None of those fishermen who went overboard in the Gulf were wearing life jackets.

To compile the harvest fatalities, the authors, Alaska-based federal epidemiologist Jennifer Lincoln and her colleague Devin Lucas, reviewed Coast Guard reports that detailed 504 fishing- industry deaths from 2000 through 2009.

Aside from the Gulf shrimp harvest, the study found that other deadly fisheries -- in terms of loss of life -- included the Atlantic scallop harvest, with 44 deaths; the Alaska salmon harvest with 39 deaths; the Alaska cod and Northeast groundfish harvests with 26 deaths each; and the West Coast Dungeness crab harvest with 25 deaths.

The Bering Sea crab harvests had 12 deaths during that time period, and the Northwest tribal salmon harvests had 10.

For epidemiologists, the sheer numbers fail to tell the whole story.

Whenever possible, the researchers tried to figure out the number of hours worked in a harvest to get a fatality rate that shows overall risk. That data wasn't available for the Gulf shrimp harvest, so the calculation couldn't be made, according to Lincoln, a co-author of the study.

In the harvests where the total number of hours worked could be tallied, the fatality rate was highest in the Northeast groundfish harvests. That rate was more than double the rate in the Bering Sea crab harvests.

Lincoln said the Bering Sea crab fleet's safety record has improved dramatically during the past 20 years. That reflects, in part, a Coast Guard crackdown on unstable vessels that sought to go to sea with too many of the steel-frame crab pots stacked on deck.

The Bering Sea crab harvest has also shifted from a derby-style harvest where each vessel competed against the next for the biggest catch to a new system where each vessel has a predetermined quota. Fishermen, under the new system, may be more inclined to wait out bad weather, or catch a few hours of extra sleep because the loss of fishing time won't affect their final catch tally.

Guindon said the Gulf shrimp's derby-style harvest is "a nightmare," and he would like to see a shift to a quota system.

The Seattle Times