From Oct. 1, 2014, through the end of September 2015, the commercial fishing industry of Alaska achieved something for the first time ever on record.
No fishing-related deaths were recorded by the U.S. Coast Guard. According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADFG), the Coast Guard had no operations on record related to commercial fishing fatalities.
“There is a change in the culture of fishing,” says Scott Wilwert, a fishing vessel safety expert with the Coast Guard. “Kids that are friends of my kids, 22, 23 years old, getting their dad’s gillnetter, they embrace safety. They are more prepared. You don’t have that, ‘you have to go out but you don’t have to come back’ mentality.”
According to the ADFG, six commercial fishing vessels sank during the summer months of 2015, but no one was killed. Boats capsizing or sinking is the leading cause of death for commercial fishermen, says the department, followed by “man overboard fatalities.”
On-deck injuries are a distant third place for commercial fishing fatalities. There are several reasons commercial fishing is much safer than in the past, Wilwert says, and why Alaska had a full year with no fatalities.
First, management practices are safer after seeing the shift from derby-style to quotas. Also, fishermen today have safety equipment, such as life jackets, survival suits and the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), along with dockside safety inspections.
Wilwert also notes that fewer vessels are on the water now than in the past.
“In the ’70s and ’80s there were about 235 vessels active in the Bering Sea and Kodiak king crab fishery,” Wilwert says. “Now there are 65 to 75 active. There are less people out there and less that can happen. They still have deadlines and quotas. But the vessels are better—we do pre-season stability checks. A lot of the problems in the derby-style crab and halibut fisheries were related to instability and overloading.”
There was one death on a commercial fishing vessel between June and September 2015, but that was not related to operations on the boat. In October 2015, the first commercial fishing fatality in Alaska occurred when a sea cucumber diver died.