The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has released the results of a comprehensive study into commercial fishing fatalities which included case studies of all fatalities from falls overboard.
The results quantify what many Islanders already know — fishing is an extremely dangerous job, a fact that hit home as recently as 2016, with the tragic death of popular fisherman Luke Gurney.
The CDC Morbidity and Mortality report, published on April 27, investigated commercial fishing fatalities in the United States from 2000 to 2016.
“Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, with a 2016 work-related fatality rate (86 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers), 23 times higher than that for all U.S. workers,” the report states. “Sinking vessels cause the most fatalities in the industry; however, falling from a fishing vessel is responsible for the second highest number of commercial fishing–associated fatalities.”
According the report, 204 commercial fishermen, 27 percent of fatalities, died from unintentional falls overboard during those years. Sixty percent of falls were not witnessed, and 90 percent of those victims were not found. Among 83 witnessed falls, 22 victims were recovered but not resuscitated.
None of those who perished was wearing a personal flotation device (PFD), according to the study.
“We need to see PFDs the same as seatbelts in cars,” Chilmark fisherman Alex Friedman told The Times. “It needs to become second nature. Do everything you can to get home to your family. I had a friend from P-Town who died scalloping, and there’s no doubt in my mind he would be alive if he was wearing a PFD. As much as we try to look out for each other, we have to look out for ourselves.”
Training a lifesaver
Statistics for the study were culled from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Commercial Fishing Incident Database. Sources include U.S. Coast Guard investigative reports, local law enforcement reports, medical examiner documents, and news media.
According to the report, records for each fall overboard were reviewed to determine the circumstances of the fall, including time in water, presence of survival or rescue equipment, recovery attempts, and administration of medical treatment.
Sixty percent of those who perished were deckhands. The majority were not greenhorns, averaging 43 years of age with 16 years of fishing experience. Seventy-five percent of the fatalities occurred when fishermen were working with and setting gear.
Only nine of the 204 fatalities, or 4 percent, had taken any formal safety training.
The most commonly identified factors of falls overboard included working alone (49 percent), alcohol and drug use (18 percent), and inclement weather (12 percent).
Ninety percent of the unwitnessed falls were not located within an hour. Of the witnessed falls overboard, life preserver rescues failed 75 percent of the time. Among 30 crewmembers who were recovered from the water within an hour, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was attempted on 21 of them, but none was resuscitated.
The most fatalities occurred in East Coast waters, 30 percent, followed closely by the Gulf of Mexico, 29 percent, then Alaska, 25 percent. West Coast waters accounted for 13 percent of fatalities.
On a positive note, fall-overboard fatalities have dropped an average of 4 percent annually, going from a high of 20 in 2003 to a low of five in 2016. But the report underscores the need for more preventive measures.
“The circumstances, rescue attempts, and limited use of lifesaving and recovery equipment indicate that efforts to reduce these preventable fatalities are needed,” the report concludes. “Vessel owners could consider strategies including lifeline tethers, line management, personal flotation devices (PFDs), man-overboard alarms, recovery devices, and rescue training.”
Fishing Partnership Support Services has provided safety instruction courses for Island fishermen at Coast Guard Station Menemsha for the past two years.
Luis Catala, safety training coordinator for Fishing Partnership Support Services, said two of the four fishermen who were rescued from the Sea Star, a fishing vessel that sank 18 miles south of the Vineyard on the night of Feb. 14, had taken Fishing Partnership Support Services safety training.
“The Fishermen’s Partnership is an unbelievable program,” Friedman said. “They provide hands-on training with fire extinguishers, survival suits, inflating rafts, and even how to make a mayday call. They played calls that resulted in successful recoveries, and some that didn’t. You have to get your longitude and latitude out right away, because sometimes the radio goes out. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t take their course again.”