Laine Welch: Association seeks to take aches out of fishing

Laine Welch

For fishermen, applying the science of ergonomics can mean changing a boat deck's layout or modifying knives and scrapers to reduce the strains, sprains and pains of fishing.

"Ergonomics is the science of adapting your workplace, your tools, equipment and work methods to be more efficient and comfortable and error free by humans. It's basically how a human body interacts with (its) work environment," explained Jerry Dzugan, director of the Sitka-based Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. AMSEA is using a $100,000 OSHA grant to fit "the work to the user instead of forcing the user to fit the work."

The goal is to reduce the muscular and skeletal disorders that pervade the fishing industry, Dzugan said: "Everyone I know who fishes can all tell me about their carpal tunnel, their tendonitis, their shoulder problems or their lower back problems."

Data from the Alaska Fishermen's Fund show that 40 percent of all claims are the result of strains and sprains, including carpal tunnel syndrome.

AMSEA aims to show how those injuries happen, teach proper lifting and moving techniques, and demonstrate how simple stretching exercises before going out on deck can minimize the harm of repetitive motions and strain. It also will show how to make deck space more ergonomically friendly and how modifying tools can help.

"Things like knives with angles so you can keep your wrist in a neutral position, or fish scrapers that have the bend in the scraper, not in your wrist. All those things make a big difference on tendonitis and carpal tunnel."

The ergonomics program will be tacked on to safety drills and training by AMSEA instructors, who also will work with local physical therapists to encourage the techniques. The program will launch early next year.


Next spring's roe herring quota for Sitka Sound's first fishery could drop by 60 percent, to just more than 11,000 tons, if survey numbers hold. That quota is down from nearly 29,000 tons last March, although the actual catch was a lackluster 13,500 tons.

Almost all of Alaska's roe goes to Japan, a market that has shrunk considerably in recent years. As a result, roe prices here have plunged. In 2011, there was a 58 percent decline in the dockside value of roe. For Sitka, that meant a drop from more than $800 a ton to less than $300. At Kodiak, prices went from $440 a ton to $220, and at Togiak, from $350 to $164 a ton.

Recently, inventories in Japan have fallen and prices are ticking up.

Alaska's herring fisheries occur into June all along the westward coast to Norton Sound.

A new report by the Juneau-based McDowell Group points out that although Alaska is the world's second largest producer of Pacific herring, after Russia, with annual harvests of about 40,000 tons, it accounts for just 1 percent of global production.

In Alaska, the only real value comes from the roe-bearing female fish, meaning fully half the catch -- the males -- is worth next to nothing. The male herring are mostly ground into fish meal and may actually cost processors and fishermen more than the meal is worth.

"Male herring are regarded as a cost of doing business in sac roe fisheries ... It is estimated that 11,800 short tons, or 23.7 million pounds, of male herring were taken in Togiak and Kodiak sac roe fisheries in 2011," the report said.

It's much different for the world's leading herring producer, Norway, where harvests can top 1 million tons a year. Fishermen there averaged 47 cents a pound in 2012 as nearly all of Norway's herring are sold fresh or frozen, smoked, pickled or preserved for human consumption. Only about 1 percent of Norway's herring harvests are turned into fish meal or oil.

The McDowell report said frozen herring fillets can range from $1.04 to $1.35 a pound and some canned herring can fetch prices comparable to that of canned Alaska salmon. The report said if male herring from the Kodiak and Togiak fisheries were made into frozen fillets, the wholesale value last year would have been about $15 million.


Last week the North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved next year's catch limits for Alaska's largest fisheries: pollock, cod, flatfish, rockfish, perch and other species collectively known as groundfish. Some highlights for the 24 different species under council purview:

2013 groundfish catches:

• Pollock: About 3 billion pounds, a 5 percent increase, in the Bering Sea. Another 267 million pounds from the Gulf of Alaska, a 4 percent increase.

• Pacific cod: In the Bering Sea, down slightly to 500 million pounds. Cod in the Gulf took a sizeable hit: just more than 133 million pounds, down nearly 8 percent.

• Sablefish (black cod): In the Bering Sea, a take of 8 million pounds, down about 13 percent; in the Gulf, 27.5 million pounds, a 3.5 percent decrease.

Combined, Alaska's 2013 groundfish catch will total about 5.4 billion pounds, more than for the rest of the U.S. combined.


Dec. 31 is the deadline to submit photos highlighting the fishing life to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Winners in five categories will receive Apple iPads. The institute will use the photos in an overseas marketing campaign. Upload photos at

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact

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