Reality check for commercial fishermen

As they gear up for the season, Island fishermen receive two days of safety and survival training.


Don’t put the injured on the raft first, they can slow down the evacuation.

Don’t stow survival suits below decks.

Don’t leave port without a Nerf football.

This was some of the wisdom imparted to a group of 35 commercial fishermen gathered at Coast Guard Station Menemsha on a gray, windy Thursday morning, where, appropriately, a storm front was bearing down on the Vineyard.

It was day one of two training days for commercial fishermen — along with sailors, harbormasters, and shellfish constables — provided by Burlington-based Fishing Partnership Support Services (FPSS).

The focus of the day one was safety and survival. Participants rotated among six training modules: man overboard procedure, firefighting and flares, survival suits, helicopter hoist operations, flooding and pump operations, first aid and CPR, and life raft equipment.

“Part of the success of this program is that it’s very hands-on,” Ed Dennehy, FPSS Director of Safety told The Times. “They will put out an actual fire. They will put on survival suits and get into the cold water. They control flooding and leaks in a simulator provided by the Coast Guard.”

FPSS has been providing this training all over New England, primarily in Massachusetts, for the past 11 years. The program has been so successful, it has spread beyond New England to New York.

“We’re trying to change the culture,” Mr. Dennehy said. “You have to have the right equipment. You have to check it. You have to train. You’re your own safety net out there.”

According to Coast Guard District 1 statistics most fatalities in New England commercial fishing industry are from sinking/capsizing and man overboard.

“A lot of guys don’t wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) because they say they’re too cumbersome,” Mr. Dennehy said. “But there has been a lot of innovation in recent years. The best PFD is the one you wear. We’re looking to change the thinking about PFD’s the way the thinking was changed about seat belts.”

Maiden voyage

This was the first time FPSS has been on Martha’s Vineyard. The idea was hatched last August, at the “Meet The Fleet” event in Menemsha, when Massachusetts Environmental Police Officer Patrick Moran told Martha’s Vineyard Fishermens Preservation Trust (MVFPT) executive director Shelley Edmundson about the safety program.

“It was so timely, given the tragedy with Luke,” she said, referring to the death of conch fisherman Luke Gurney last June. Mr. Gurney drowned after becoming entangled in conch pots he was setting off the coast of Nantucket. “It can be hard to get Islanders to go off-Island for things like this. I spoke to [FPSS] and they said they had wanted to come here and that they needed a minimum of 20 people and I said ‘let’s do it.’” Ms. Edmundson asked FPSS if they could do the training in early April, before the season got going in earnest. FPSS quickly agreed.

In addition to her duties as MVFPT executive director, Ms. Edmundson spends a good deal of time on the water, studying conch.

“The thing that struck me is how many things you have to be on top of when you’re on the water,” she said. “The equipment you need to have on your vessel, and it has expiration dates. It’s not enough just to have it, you have to inspect it so it works when you need it. Even survival suits have expiration dates.They said if you’re not taking out your survival suit and checking it on a regular basis for holes and cracks it is doing you no good.”

Where the equipment is stored can also be a matter of life and death. “Most people store survival suits down below where it’s not accessible. They said there were four abandon ship calls last year, and there were four fatalities and in each case, it was the guy who went down to get the survival suit who didn’t survive. That wasn’t coincidence. Every fisherman in my group said they stored their survival suits down below.”

The most emotional moment came when Luke Gurney’s father, John, spoke to the group about the importance of having a proper knife on their person, Ms Edmundson said. “He was absolutely incredible,” she said. “He said when you’re entangled, you have to know the amount of time that you can hold your breath. You need a knife that is tethered on your body somewhere. And he said you need to practice for this in a controlled environment. I think that made the reality hit home for everyone.”

“It was really worthwhile,” veteran lobsterman Wayne Iacono told The Times. “There were some refreshing ideas and good information about what to brush up on. I’m so glad I did it. I can’t see anyone not taking the course if they have the opportunity.”

Mr. Iacono, who fishes by himself about 90 percent of the time, said the man overboard training hit home. “That was pretty graphic,” he said. “None of us wear PFD’s when we’re working. But I’m going to order one.”

Mr. Iacono fishes from March through the holidays, and spends a good deal of time in cold conditions. He said the cold water training was also a wake up call. “There were Coast Guard rescue swimmers in 38 degree water, and they just could not do it,” he said. “It took me aback for people in that good shape to be struggling. They have a 1-10-1 rule. One minute to control your breath, 10 minutes to do any worthwhile movement, and one hour to live, in 42 degree water. I’d never been in a survival suit in the water before, just on land, so that was a good test.”

Mr. Iacono said he’s only gone overboard once in his 50 years of fishing. It was February, he had just docked after a day of scalloping and slipped on some ice on the bow. Fortunately, he wasn’t alone. “I don’t think I would have been able to get back in the boat if it wasn’t for my son,” he said.

“They did an incredible job, both the [MVFPT] and the FPSS,” fisherman Jeff Canha told The Times.  Mr. Canha, a fourth generation Island fisherman, has been a captain for 35 years. “It’s the best safety and survival instruction I’ve ever had. It’s always good to participate in actually doing this stuff, rather than just reading about it.”

The big takeaway was the importance of training for the worst. “Crew instruction through drills is so important,” Mr. Canha said. “Whether a boat is commercial or not, everyone on that boat should know how to find the position of that vessel and be able to radio it in. A lot of people don’t’ know where the man overboard button is on the GPS. Everyone in the crew should know what to do if the captain has a heart attack or goes overboard.”

Mr. Canha successfully completed the “Certified Drill Conductor” training on Friday. He said he also picked up a book on Friday, “Beating the Odds,’ a Guide for Commercial Fishing Safety,” that he said is a “go-to, must have” for all fishermen.

“I’m giving a copy to my son, who’s getting his captain’s license next week.”

Mr. Canha said he often fishes by himself, but he does not wear a PFD. “But I won one today in a raffle,” he said. “It’s amazing, it’s sewn into coveralls but you hardly notice it. I’m giving it to my son.”

FPSS is a non-profit, funded by private donations, state and federal grants. There is no charge for the program. It is an outgrowth of the Fishing Partnership, a non-profit organization with a charter to support the health and well-being of fishing families in New England since 1997.

Since commercial safety regulations were first initiated 1991 and enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard, fatalities have dropped significantly, from 18-20 deaths per year to about three deaths per year over the past five years. “Of course that’s still too many, but that’s a significant drop,” District 1 Fishing Vessel Safety Coordinator Ted Harrington told The Times. “You might attribute some of that to the decline of the fishing industry, but there are thousands of lobster fishermen out there, a lot of them working by themselves. We definitely think [FPSS] is having an impact.”

What about that Nerf football? It’s an excellent tool to help fishermen plug leaks, according to FPSS instructors.