Budget cut could be deadly for fishermen

Gunnar Knapp

For most Americans, the "Deadliest Catch" is a TV show. For me, the real deadliest catch is an ongoing human tragedy of loss and grief, of hundreds of commercial fishermen who have died across America since I began studying fishing safety 25 years ago, and calculated some of the first statistics to show just how deadly the commercial fishing industry is.

But things are getting better. There are more news stories in Alaska and other fishing states about heroic Coast Guard rescues of fishermen in survival suits and life rafts. There are fewer stories about abandoned searches for boats that disappeared with all hands lost, and the anguish of their families, friends and communities. Annual deaths in Alaskan commercial fishing are down from 35 per year in the early 1990s to about 12 per year from 2007-2009 -- which still leaves fishing as one of the most dangerous industries in Alaska and the country.

Things are getting better because the fishing industry and the government have been working together to make fishing safer. Many things have made a difference, such as laws requiring boats to carry immersion suits, life rafts, and EPIRBS; marine safety training; augmentations to the U.S. Coast Guard's search -- and -- rescue infrastructure and staffing; and changes in the management regulations for some fisheries.

An important part of what has made a difference is the NIOSH Commercial Fishing Safety Research Program, a small program within the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Over the past 20 years, the NIOSH fishing safety program has worked systematically to understand fishing safety problems -- what makes the difference between people dying and surviving -- and to find practical ways of making fishing safer. It has funded safety training programs for fishermen. It has developed an emergency stop switch for the hydraulic winch-driven gear that has entangled and killed and injured so many fishermen. It has made the case for cost- effective safety regulations that make sense for different fisheries and different kinds of boats.

So I was stunned to learn that the administration's FY 2012 budget would eliminate the NIOSH fishing safety program -- a cut which would save the federal government at most a few hundred thousand dollars. Unbelievably, the stated rationale was a review of NIOSH programs by a National Academy of Sciences panel which had specifically praised the fishing safety program as an "exemplary" program which had "executed its research according to how an ideal program would operate." (Members of the panel have since written to Congress protesting the misunderstanding of their review and misuse of its conclusions.)

People who understand what is at stake, like the United Fishermen of Alaska, the Coast Guard's Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Commission, and Alaska's congressional delegation are doing what they can to argue against cutting this NIOSH fishing safety program. I hope they will be heard.

I'm an economist. I recognize the importance of getting federal spending in line with revenues. But we're not going to get there by blindly slashing some of the most important things the federal government does -- which account for only a tiny fraction of what we're spending -- because we're in a rush to cut and we can't face up to the real issues of how much health care and defense we want and how we're going to pay for it.

I know deficits can drag this country down. So the president and the Democrats and Republicans in Congress should start talking seriously about real solutions to the deficit. What will really drag this country down, and a lot faster, is giving up believing we can do better as a country and thoughtlessly cutting programs which work. Like the NIOSH Commercial Fishing Safety Research program.

Gunnar Knapp is a professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research. In the 1980s he estimated fatality rates in Alaska's commercial fishing industry and served on the National Research Council's Committee on Fishing Vessel Safety. He has done some research for and received some funding from the NIOSH fishing safety program.