On the night of June 26, 2010 the fishing vessel Paul Revere, a salmon setnet skiff, capsized while setting their gear in preparation for the start of fishing season. The skipper and her two crew members were thrown in the waters of Bristol Bay near South Naknek, AK. The crew spent two harrowing hours drifting with the current and trying to signal for help. Eventually they were able to rescue themselves by catching onto a setnet line and pulling themselves hand over hand toward shore. The skipper and her crew were wearing inflatable PFDs as part of their standard work gear.
They attribute their survival to the flotation and peace of mind provided by these devices. Their story shows how effective PFDs can be in preventing fatalities among commercial fishermen. We know the details of this story only because the PFDs used by the crew allowed them to survive much longer in the water than they would have without them. Without their PFDs, the fishermen most certainly would have succumbed to the effects of cold water immersion and drowned.
We interviewed the skipper and one of her crewmen to capture their story and highlight the role their PFDs played in preventing them from becoming statistics. The resulting video, Paul Revere: A Story of Survival in Bristol Bay, is available now on the NIOSH website and the NIOSH YouTube channel for viewing and download. Since their accident, the skipper and crew have become vocal advocates for the use of PFDs on deck while working and use their experience to encourage family and friends in the industry to use comfortable PFDs on their own vessels.
Commercial fishing is one of the deadliest occupations in the country and 83% of those fatalities are the result of vessel disasters (52%) or falls overboard (31%). A 2013 study by researchers at the NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office found that 37% of fishermen never wear a personal flotation device (PFD) while working on deck. Further analysis showed that of the 191 man overboard fatalities in the US between 2000 and 2012, only one of the victims was wearing a PFD.
Our research confirms anecdotal evidence that fishermen see PFDs as uncomfortable or an entanglement hazard. And while a majority of fishermen say that PFDs are good at preventing deaths from falls overboard, stories told around the docks recount instances where men were lost overboard and succumbed to the cold in mere minutes. This leads to a fatalistic view of the survivability of vessel disasters and man overboard events if you end up in the water. In reality, research shows there are comfortable PFDs available on the market and wearing one can drastically extend your survival time if you end up in the water. The NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office has an ongoing communication effort to educate fishermen and their families on how PFDs have been proven to save lives and that comfortable options really do exist.
Fishing industry fatalities are preventable and the PFD plays an important role. Many new, more comfortable types of PDFs are on the market today. Find a PFD that right for you by looking at our gear specific PFD study results. We encourage commercial fishermen (or any worker whose job takes them on the water) to go to their local gear supplier, try on a variety of PFDs, and find one that will work as hard as they do.
For more information visit the NIOSH Fishing Topic Page or follow us on Twitter and take a look at our gear specific PFD recommendations based on input from commercial fishermen. We at NIOSH would like to hear more of these stories. If you would like to share your story, please summarize it in the comment section below or send us an e-mail at NIOSHFishing@cdc.gov.
Theodore D. Teske, MA
Mr. Teske is a Health Communication Specialist in the NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office.