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Commercial Fishing Vessels - Highest Fatality Rate Among All Vessels at Sea

The Coast Guard recently released information on the top ten most severe marine casualties from 2006 through 2010, rating these ten in terms of loss of life, loss of vessel, damage, and pollution. In 2010, the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (MODU) Deepwater Horizon explosion made headlines, with 11 deaths, 17 injured workers, and estimated damages of $350 million. But, for all of that, the overall highest fatality rate among those who work at sea is in the commercial fishing industry. During the same time period, 30 fishing industry members perished while working.

One measure credited with improving the death toll since 2006 is the change in the fishing quota system. Before 2006, commercial fishers in Alaska would race each other to get the largest haul possible during a set time frame or season, going out in the worst weather and sometimes overloading their vessels in order to come home with the largest catch. This system backfired from both ecological and safety standpoints. After 2006, the system was changed to an individual quota or "catch share" for each vessel. This change was intended remove the incentive to risk life and limb in too-dangerous weather or to overload gear and catch to the point of vessel instability, as well as to ameliorate overfishing and to raise the market value of the catch. (It also put many smaller vessels out of work due to lesser quotas not meeting the overhead costs.) However, this change alone was not enough.

Overloading gear or catch may seriously compromise vessel stability by causing a shift in the center of gravity, which in turn may lead to listing, flooding, capsizing, and sinking. New construction on an older vessel also may substantially alter the center of gravity, something no one wants to find out about at the last moment. Instability after vessel modification was a factor in the sinking of F/V ASH in 2006, which resulted in the loss of four crew members.

Over the years of investigating maritime losses, the USCG compiled a number of new and amended safety recommendations. The resulting U.S. Coast Guard Act of 2010 went into effect in October of 2010. Some of the regulations listed in the Act include mandating safety and operational training for all vessel masters and requiring load lines for vessels over 79 feet. Other new regulations listed in the Act include that vessel masters must also ensure that personal flotation devices, including survival suits, are well-fitted and accessible to each individual on board (46 CFR 28.110), that there are life rafts on board documented vessels (46 CFR 28.125), and the master must conduct and log monthly emergency training drills (46 CFR 28.270). The USCG will continue to assess how these and other regulations impact fishing vessel safety, and amend accordingly.

In order to encourage education and enforce compliance the regulations, the USCG dockside inspections for commercial fishing vessels operating beyond the three mile limit took effect on October 16, 2012.

Regulations such as these are created in part in reaction to tragedies that have already occurred, in the hope of preventing future tragedy. That said, masters and crew are encouraged to be active participants in their own safety and to work to prevent worst case scenarios. The employer must provide a seaworthy vessel. Moving mechanical parts must have machine guards. Crews must be trained and, if at all possible, well rested. Life jackets should be worn while working because there is often no time to don one during an emergency. Considering that most of the deaths at sea are due to drowning, they buy valuable time afloat pending rescue. The sea is not a safe place, but we can change our expectations; there are actions owners, masters, and crew alike can take to continue to increase awareness and reduce the high losses in the fishing industry.

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