Alaska News

Alaska commercial fishing industry goes 1 year without a fatality

Bristol Bay, Twin Tuition, aerial, salmon

For the second time ever, Alaska went a year with zero fatalities in its commercial fishing industry.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported that there were no operational fatalities from Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022 in Alaska’s commercial fishing industry. An operational fatality is when someone dies during the operation of a vessel at sea, including from causes like drowning, lost vessels or accidents, among other causes. This is only the second time Alaska recorded a year without a death in the commercial fishing sector; the first year was in 2015. However, the fatality rate in the industry has been on a steep downward trend for the last few decades.

Scott Wilwert, the commercial fishing vessel safety coordinator for the U.S. Coast Guard’s 17th District, which covers Alaska, said it seems to be uncommon for an entire Coast Guard district to clock zero fatalities. Some of the other districts, which cover all the coastal waters of the U.S. including the Great Lakes and some inland navigable waterways, may fluctuate, but given the size of Alaska’s fishing industry, going a whole year with no deaths is especially impressive.

“I’m almost 100% sure that nationally we’ve never had a zero year,” he said. “For (the 17th district) to have a zero-fatality year, it’s significant given the number of (full-time fishermen) we have going out there on the water.”

Commercial fishing was historically one of the most dangerous industries in Alaska. As recently as the 1990s, dozens of fishermen would die every year from causes including drowning, machinery accidents or vessel sinkings. From 1980-1988, an average of 31 fishermen died every year. From 1990-1999, there were 210 operational fatalities among Alaska’s commercial fishermen.

Since then, efforts to improve safety procedures, education and fisheries management have helped bring that number down significantly. From 2000-2010, 108 fishermen died, about half the number in the previous decade. From 2011–2020, that figure dropped again to 63. In the last two years, the Coast Guard has recorded only three operational fatalities.

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A variety of factors have played into that reduction. Wilwert pointed to changes in fisheries management, including rationalization and the movement away from derby-style fisheries — in which fishermen competed to harvest the largest number of fish they could in a short period of time, often driving them to take risks and potentially collide.

He also noted that there has been a shift in safety culture, where more fishermen are taking advantage of the Coast Guard’s dockside exams on vessels and equipping vessels with safety gear.

“There seems to be much more of an embracing of safety and an understanding that people need to sustain themselves until rescue comes,” he said. “In Alaska, rescue can be a ways away. I think it’s been a change in culture.”

There have been regulatory changes as well. Since the 1990s, crewmen have had to be trained in safety drills and first aid, and gear like immersion suits and life rafts became required. The requirements for safety gear vary by size of vessel and how far out from shore they regularly operate, but many more of them now carry Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, or EPIRBs.

There have also been improvements in the types of personal flotation devices available to fishermen, making it easier to wear one without it getting in the way or getting snagged on gear. Some of them are much less intrusive now, including one that fits under fishing bibs and only inflates when it hits the water.

Wilwert said the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health gathered data a few years ago on what kinds of PFDs worked for fishermen, which helped get buy-in from fishermen to wear them.

“That really brought to the forefront for fishermen that there’s something for everyone,” he said.

Jerry Dzugan, the executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, a Sitka-based nonprofit that conducts safety trainings for fishermen and other mariners, said the trend in safety in Alaska over the past few decades has been encouraging, and that the incoming younger generation of fishermen seems more safety-oriented than previous generations.

“In the old days, fishermen would come to a class and think they’d be looking at their competitors,” he said. “Younger people seem to have a more positive attitude toward it.”

Dzugan also pointed to a shift in the way fisheries are managed, in addition to the improved awareness of safety and more training. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, when fatalities spiked, many younger people were rushing up to join the fishery because of the relatively low cost of entry and booming salmon runs. That lack of experience and training may have led to more dangerous behavior, he said. Since then, management has shifted to rationalization and quotas, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act now requires that federal regulators consider safety when changing a fishery. There are still fisheries where there are big rushes in short periods of time that can lead to dangerous conditions, including sleep deprivation among fishermen, but not as many as there used to be, he said.

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As of mid-November, Alaska had gone 17 months without a commercial fishing fatality, which Dzugan said is a record.

Many of Alaska’s fishing vessels are aging, but that is not necessarily a major concern. Both Wilwert and Dzugan said the defining factor in a vessel’s safety is not its age, but how well it is maintained. Dzugan pointed to some of the wooden halibut vessels that are still well-maintained and fishing today.

“It’s not so much about the age of the vessel as the economics of the fishery they’re in. Some of the most solid boats with the good history are the wooden halibut schooners that are 110, 120 years old,” he said. “When the fishery is poor, (vessel owners) defer maintenance. It’s not the age of the vessel as well as how well it’s been maintained.”

It’s hard to predict what will happen in future years, though Wilwert said the Coast Guard’s hope is always that that there will be few or no fatalities. But the overall trend declining over time is more indicative of the improved safety in the region than fatality numbers in individual years, he said.

One thing the Coast Guard always encourages fishermen to do is get a voluntary dockside examination to make sure all their gear is in order and people are trained on how to use it — it’s too late if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, even if you have good gear aboard, he said.

“Our message to the fishermen is pretty consistent, and it’s always going to be centered around whether it’s required for you or not, take advantage of the opportunity to get a dockside exam,” he said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabethearl@gmail.com.

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Elizabeth Earl for Alaska Journal of Commerce

Elizabeth Earl is a freelance reporter based on the Kenai Peninsula. Reach her at elizabethearl@gmail.com.

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