The television documentary Deadliest Catch, the novel The Perfect Storm, and media accounts of tragedies at sea have publicized the all-too-real hazards of commercial fishing. Commercial fishing is the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., with an annual fatality rate of 142 deaths/100,000 fishermen, almost 36 times higher than the fatality rate for the average U.S. worker (4.4/100,000). The NIOSH Alaska Field Station has played an important role in significantly improving safety among commercial fishermen in Alaska. An emphasis on understanding the commercial fishing culture and the rugged work environment coupled with quality science has helped NIOSH create practical prevention recommendations that are now commonly used in the industry and are saving lives.
While the number of occupational deaths in commercial fishing in Alaska has declined, it remains a dangerous occupation. There is a continuing pattern of losing 20 to 40 vessels every year, and about 100 fishermen must be rescued each year from cold Alaska waters as we saw in the recent tragedy aboard the Alaska Ranger where 42 people were rescued and five lost their lives, including the captain. Furthermore, the individuals involved in the U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue operations are themselves at considerable risk for injury or death during rescue attempts.
While the hazards of commercial fishing in Alaska are well documented, there is little published literature examining safety problems in the rest of the U.S. fishing industry. In a recent study, NIOSH identified high risk fisheries on the West Coast and the associated risk factors contributing to fatalities. The findings revealed that the West Coast region had a fatality rate 70 percent higher than the reported national average, and two times higher than the rate in the Alaska fishing industry during the same time period. The dungeness crab fleet had the highest fatality rate of any fishery on the West Coast or in Alaska, including the Bering Sea crab fishery. A summary of the study including the methodology can be found in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Based on the successes experienced in Alaska, implementing these prevention strategies should significantly reduce fatalities in West Coast fisheries and help protect the men and women who risk their lives working in the most dangerous occupation in the United States.
—Jennifer Lincoln, Ph.D.
Dr. Lincoln is an Injury Epidemiologist in the NIOSH Alaska Field Station.
More information on NIOSH research in the commercial fishing industry can be found on the NIOSH website. In addition, NIOSH recently produced a video, The Most Powerful Thing, in collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard. The video, which describes deck safety awareness for purse seiners, can be downloaded or viewed via streaming video on the NIOSH website.