Alaska News

After falling to historic lows, Alaska commercial fishing deaths on the rise

After a recent historic year of no recorded deaths in Alaska's commercial fishing industry, fatalities in the sector known for its dangers have once again spiked.

There have been 10 commercial fishing deaths in Alaska so far in 2017.

A large portion of this year's deaths were from the fishing vessel Destination, which sank in the Bering Sea just north of St. George Island in February. The six men on the boat were later legally declared dead. The other deaths were a man overboard on the fishing vessel Dances with Clams in the Copper River Delta in May, the June capsizing of the boat Miss Destinee in Marmot Bay off Kodiak Island which killed two, and a person overboard from the Lady Colleen in July in Ugashik Bay.

This comes not long after the U.S. Coast Guard recorded the first year — measured from Oct. 1, 2014, through Sept. 30, 2015 — of zero operations-related deaths in Alaska's commercial fishing industry.

Since the 1990s, commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska generally have been on a downward trend. But year-to-year, the figure can vary dramatically. It's hard to suss out a specific reason why the number of deaths rises or falls over short periods of time, experts in the industry say.

"Whenever you're dealing with numbers that are relatively small, there's cycles of high and low," said Jerry Dzugan, executive director of Sitka-based nonprofit Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. "It's hard stuff to study because of all these compounding variables that affect it."

Some of those factors, he said, include weather, how many fish come in during a given season, and the price of fuel (which could affect how far from the shore fishermen want to travel).


"This year, a new theory of mine — we had a lot of fish coming in in the salmon industry. When you're in that much abundance of fish, there's a tendency to overload because you've got so many fish," Dzugan said. "Overloading obviously is a risk, sleep deprivation is a risk … and when there's money coming in — ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching — who wants to stop?"

The Coast Guard and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health both track deaths in the industry, but they do so slightly differently. The Coast Guard goes by federal fiscal year — October through September — and only counts operational fatalities while vessels are out at sea. NIOSH goes by a calendar year and is a bit more inclusive, also tallying deaths that happen on shore in conjunction with fishing work, as well as things like work-related suicides, homicides and drug overdoses.

So far this year, both agencies have recorded 10 fatalities.

"For 2017, so far it seems like a tragic year for fishing vessel fatalities and we're just a little more than halfway through the year," said Devin Lucas, an occupational safety scientist for NIOSH in Anchorage. "Hopefully there aren't any more. It does seem to be the wrong direction to keep the decreasing trend going."

[Alaska's commercial fishing industry just had its first year with no deaths]

Scott Wilwert, fishing vessel safety coordinator with the Coast Guard in Alaska, said there's no specific answer for why deaths went up this year.

"There's no one place to hang your hat and say, 'Oh, I know what will fix all this,' " he said.

He added that the death of six people at one time on the crabbing boat Destination is "huge."

"We're still moving in the right direction compared to where we were (in the '90s)," he said, "but this year is much different from the last two years, when we had zero and two."

In 2015 and 2016, the Coast Guard recorded zero and then two deaths during the fiscal year, respectively. In 2015, NIOSH recorded five deaths: two drug overdoses on fishing vessels, a suicide, a fall from a dock into a harbor, and one sea cucumber diving fatality. The following calendar year, NIOSH logged 10 fatalities: three dock falls, three drug overdoses, two suicides, a homicide and a fall overboard.

The dangers of commercial fishing in Alaska's rough waters are many. Workers can get tangled in or hit by equipment, slip, or drown after falling overboard, to name a few.

Between 2010 and 2014, vessel disasters were the most common cause of commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska, according to a report last month from NIOSH. Such disasters include sinking, capsizing, grounding, fire, "or other events that force crews to abandon ship," that report said. Drowning from falling overboard was the second leading cause of death during those years, when there were 45 commercial fishing fatalities total in the state.

Declines of such deaths in Alaska in the 1990s had a lot to do with the increase in safety equipment on vessels, such as life rafts, immersion suits and radio systems to send out distress signals, Lucas said. That was shortly after the federal Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988. Marine safety training has also improved over the years.

Death from falling overboard can usually be prevented by wearing flotation devices, Lucas said. It isn't required for commercial fishermen to wear life jackets when they are aboard their boats, though Lucas said his agency has recommended for years that it be mandatory.

Between 2000 and 2014, NIOSH found that there were 210 fatal falls overboard in the commercial fishing industry nationwide, and none of those people were wearing a flotation device when they drowned.

"It's a pretty rare thing to see a fisherman wearing a life jacket," Dzugan said.

In its July report, NIOSH included a list of recommendations to improve safety in the industry. Those include safety training for fishermen, monthly emergency drills, fatigue management policies, use of a "man-overboard" alarm system, and installation of safety devices on deck machinery.

The Coast Guard is still investigating the deaths that have happened this year.

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.