Safety at sea takes a leap forward

First published in Landings, January, 2020

Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations, and the East Coast has the highest number of commercial fishing fatalities in the United States. For New England commercial lobstermen, falls overboard are the most frequent cause of death. Researchers at the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety (NEC) have been working to change that, one lifejacket at a time.

Based in Bassett Healthcare Network’s Chamberlain Center in Fly Creek, NY, the NEC is one of 11 agricultural centers across the country designated and funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Serving a 12-state region from Maine to West Virginia, the NEC promotes health and safety research, education, and prevention activities in the high-risk areas of farming, commercial fishing and logging.

Since 2016, NEC researchers have evaluated barriers that lobstermen experience when considering wearing lifejackets. In April, researchers embarked on a campaign to distribute lifejackets from two vans traveling from port to port along the Maine and Massachusetts coastlines. The “Lifejackets for Lobstermen” vans carried 11 models of personal flotation devices (PFDs), available at a 50% discount. The selection was the culmination of more than 550 lobstermen giving guidance over the course of three years on the “ideal” working lifejacket.

Nick Martin, a Cushing lobsterman, wrestling a big lobster in his newly purchased Stormline Flotation bib.
Photo courtesy of NEC.

“The fishermen have guided all of our research, telling us what would help and, equally importantly, what wouldn’t work. “ said Rebecca Weil, a research coordinator for the study.

Two fieldwork coordinators navigated 10,000 miles up and down the coastline, parking the vans at 53 ports for a total of 159 days to promote the project and give lobstermen a chance to try on and purchase the lifejackets. The project surpassed expectations, distributing 1,076 PFDs to Northeast lobstermen. “We are seeing pictures of fishermen wearing their new gear working on their boats,” said Weil. “At least one life has already been saved, and that makes all this effort worth it.”

One Cohasset, Massachusetts, lobsterman told researchers at one of the vans’ port stops, “We all know someone that hasn’t come home. Most of us know many.”

The project has been so successful that Fishing Partnership Support Services, a non-profit fishing industry health and safety organization, will be continuing the work of Lifejackets for Lobstermen in 2020. As part of Fishing Partnership’s free courses on safety and survival at sea, one of the vans will be used to provide fishermen the opportunity to learn about the importance of lifejackets, the options available to them and the chance to purchase lifejackets at the same 50% discount.

A lobsterman examines the personal flotation devices offered at the Lifejackets for Lobstermen van during a visit to South Blue Hill in September.
Photo Courtesy of The Ellsworth American.

“We couldn’t have done this without all the community support and we are so excited to see it continue,” noted Jessica Echard, a research coordinator. NEC has been collaborating on this project with Fishing Partnership Support Services, Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, McMillan Offshore Survival Training, and the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association. See images and follow the vans’ journey from port to port on the project’s Facebook page, @lifejacketsforlobstermen. Preliminary study findings were reported in an article written by NEC and Bassett Research Institute researchers and published in the October issue of the Journal of Agromedicine issue. The project was also featured in the April issue of Forbes’ magazine as well as by a wide variety of television, radio, print and online media sources throughout New England.

The Lifejacket Project Team wants to thank all the fishermen, families and communities who are making safety such a priority. Manufacturers who made this all possible were Mustang Survival Systems, Kent Safety Products, Hyde Sportswear, Stormline Gear, Hero Water Wear, Coleman/Stearns, Spinlock, and West Marine. While many retailers helped us along the way, special thanks go to Downeast Fishing Gear, Hercules SLR, and Brooks Trap Mill for being integral to the project’s success.

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