Alaska News

Study: Alaska salmon gillnet fishermen face high rate of health issues

Commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska have much higher rates of some health problems than the general population, a recent study has found.

The study, from the University of Washington School of Public Health and Alaska Sea Grant, surveyed and assessed gillnet permit holders in the Alaska Copper River salmon fishery in 2015.

"The prevalence of hearing loss, upper extremity disorders, and sleep apnea risk factors were higher than in the general population both before and during the fishing season," the study found.

Exposure to noise, the demands of gillnetting on the body, and long working hours while fishing exacerbate those chronic health conditions, the study said.

About 80 percent of participants who had a physical exam for the study had hearing loss, compared with 15 percent for Americans between 20 and 69. About 40 percent of participants had rotator cuff problems, compared with 8 to 14 percent in the general population.

The health problems also included other types of upper extremity disorders and fatigue that could be associated with sleep apnea.

"Less sleep combined with poor quality sleep may exacerbate fatigue during the fishing season," according to a news release about the study.


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

The study was published in April in the Journal of Agromedicine. Researchers surveyed participants twice in 2015 — 66 Cordova-area fishermen participated in the preseason survey in March and 38 participated in the midseason survey in July of that year.

Most of the participants were white men with an average age of 49, and about 70 percent were overweight or obese. The study also came with a caveat, that the sample size was small and "may not be generalizable to the gillnet fleet, nor commercial fishermen as a whole."

Commercial fishing in Alaska has long been a profession known for its fatalities, but it has become less deadly in recent years than it was in the 1980s. From Oct. 1, 2014, to the end of September 2015 was the first yearlong period when the U.S. Coast Guard recorded zero operations-related commercial fishing deaths in the state.

Alaska Sea Grant is part of the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Annie Zak

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