First published in Landings, January, 2016.
Working as a fisherman isn’t for everyone, but for most who have built a career working on the ocean hauling trap after trap, it is the only career worth choosing. You are your own boss, you own your boat and gear and you get to enjoy all the splendor Mother Nature can offer. Most lobstermen could not imagine living any other life.
Fishing also has the distinction of being one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. It’s hard to imagine danger when you go to haul on a calm, flat day. But gentle breezes can quickly turn to gales and calm seas into choppy swells. Anyone who’s ever fished understands that circumstances can change in an instant, even on a calm day.
According to data compiled by Fishing Partnership Support Services (FPSS), the region fished by Maine’s fishermen, the Gulf of Maine, is the deadliest in the country. Fishermen are 37 times more likely to die on the job than policemen. If our school teachers died on the job at the same rate as fishermen in Maine, we would lose 92 Maine public school teachers each year. Falls overboard are the leading cause of fatalities in the Northeast lobster fishery, yet only 9% of fishermen regularly wear a personal flotation device.
Maine’s lobster fleet has become more safety conscious in order to comply with new Coast Guard safety regulations. This is important given the shift of the fishery to further offshore. But when lobsters are trapping, it is easy to push the limits. Even with all of our modern technology, the weather can change and deck conditions can become dangerous. Unfortunately, pushing the limits can turn to tragedy, as it did when three Maine fishermen were lost while fishing in 2014.
Fortunately, the news for Maine’s fleet was much better in 2015, with no fishing-related deaths reported. Two Maine fishermen — Robert Staples of North Haven and John Wallace of Stonington — did die at sea but due to natural causes. Massachusetts did not fare as well, losing two fishermen to the job — Michael J Willet of F/V Hear No Evil out of New Bedford who went overboard and David Sutherland of F/V Orin C out of Gloucester, who drowned when the vessel capsized during a tow. These losses are proof that a seemingly unremarkable day can turn deadly.
The MLA takes the safety of our fleet very seriously. For many years, we have rewarded those who complete the drill conductor training every five years with a 5% discount on vessel insurance through Smithwick & Mariners. We have not opposed most of the new Coast Guard safety regulations which now affect any vessel fishing outside of three miles. The MLA, however, remains concerned about the financial burden which is falling on our fleet from the regulations. We are working with FPSS to urge Congress, with the help of Senator Collins, to fund $6 million in competitive grant programs to provide safety training and research which were authorized by Congress but never funded.
Organizations such as FPSS have provided a limited number of safety and survival training classes, including one program in Portland last year funded through a private grant. This training saves lives. In Alaska, training offered by the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) played a critical role in the reduction of fatalities from an average of 37 per year in 1986‐1990 to fewer than 10 per year in 2008‐2012 — the biggest drop ever in the United States. Furthermore, research by the National Institute for Occupational Health & Safety (NIOSH) demonstrates that AMSEA‐trained fishermen have a 1.5 times better chance of surviving at sea. Yet only 10% of New England fishermen have taken advantage of safety training. Given the lack of training opportunities offered in Maine, that percentage is undoubtedly even smaller here.
Keep in mind that the cost savings associated with preventing just one search and rescue by the Coast Guard is more than the cost of running the program in New England for an entire year. A search and rescue mission can easily cost $200,000 per day and multi-day searches can cost $1.5 million and more.
As we reflect on the safety of our fleet and mourn the tragic loss of two Massachusetts fishermen this past year, please take some time to think about your health and safety at sea. Be sure that you have all of the necessary safety equipment on board your vessel, that it is in proper working condition and that you and your crew are trained to use it. Be sure to always have access to a knife and think about wearing a PFD and a personal EPIRB when you are fishing.
You must always respect the power of the ocean, and you must always be prepared. It just might save your life.
As always, stay safe on the water.