Eleven Alaska fishermen have lost their lives so far this year, the most in 13 years, and it follows a 76 percent decrease in fishing deaths since the 1980s.
“The causes are still capsizing, sinkings, swampings and man overboards. They haven’t changed much.”
Jerry Dzugan is director of the Sitka-based Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. He advises taking a time out to take stock of your fishing operation and your behaviors.
“It’s a good midseason ‘check up from the neck up’ situation and to focus back on the basics again and make sure your vessel is stable and is water tight and your crew is protected from man overboards.”
Flooding and loss of boat stability, for example, are the cause of half of the fatalities. And between 25 to 35 percent are from falling overboard, more than half of which are not witnessed.
Overboard deaths are easily preventable – a study of over 500 fishing fatalities showed that not one was wearing a life jacket. Many deck gears now have flotation built into suspenders or vests.
“ You don’t’ fall in the water and die of hypothermia right away. You’ve got a half hour to an hour before you succumb to hypothermia. The biggest risk is drowning and we’ve had a solution to that for hundreds of years and that’s a life preserver.”
Vessels should have a mechanical way to get people back on board, at least with blocks and tackle, and a boarding ladder.
“Have you got something set up to get someone on the boat quickly and does the crew know what to do in that situation. Can you get yourself back on the boat? If it’s a two person operation, can a new green hand get you back on the boat as the skipper? “
Dzugan says many fishermen don’t have good technical knowledge of vessel stability. A swamping takes just one wave.
“Most vessels are designed to be water tight but even if they have originally a water tight bulkhead people drill holes through them for piping or electrical passages and don’t fill them up again. Or they don’t have high water alarms in every space and people get other priorities in maintenance and they forget about the watertight integrity of their vessel.”
Check your survival gear. Pay attention to weather forecasts. Do onboard safety drills, which are mandatory, but tough for the Coast Guard to enforce.
“A lot of people think doing a drill is talking about it around the galley table once a year and are not as hands on as they should be. On some vessels they are, so it’s a process of being accepted and people taking the time to realize this is an important thing to do.”
Another cause of fishing accidents is simply fatigue and not getting enough sleep.
“We’ve got long days, especially in the salmon industry the fish are running, how much money you can make depends on how long you can stay awake in some degrees. So you’re pushing yourself to the limit. All the studies show in fatigue and sleep deprivation that your decision making decreases the longer you go without sleep. You start making stupid mistakes.”