Year after year, commercial fishing ranks as America’s most lethal job. But despite the spectacular scenes caught on tv, the real catch doesn’t have to be deadly.
By Kalee Thompson
It was after midnight on 22 October 2008 when lifelong Alaska fisherman Guy Schroder was woken up in his bunk on board the F/V Katmai. “Guy, we’ve got problems,” crewman Carlos Zabala told the 50-year-old deck boss. “We’ve lost steering.” Schroder rushed up to the wheelhouse of the 22 m factory cod boat, a vessel he had been working on for just a few months. The captain was at the helm, struggling to control the converted shrimp trawler in 10 m seas. Outside, the wind was blowing close to 160 km/h. Schroder noticed that a watertight door at the ship’s stern had been left open, allowing crashing seawater to flood into the ship’s processing space. He could tell that the motors were already under water.
As the captain issued the order to abandon ship, Schroder scrambled to pull on a full-body neoprene survival suit and to help launch one of the Katmai’s two life rafts. By the time the vessel capsized just minutes later, seven of the ship’s 11 crew members had made it inside Schroder’s raft, a circular, tent-like shelter that had been manufactured almost three decades earlier.
“Then, ka-whoom!” the fisherman later recounted for Coast Guard investigators. “Everybody got knocked and thrown in all directions. It was pitch black – and ka-blam! Another wave came, and it flipped the raft upside down.” All seven men ended up submerged in the 6° ocean, fighting to make their way back to the overturned raft. “Now you can’t see the raft’s light,” Schroder recalled. “All you can hear is screaming, and crying for help.”
The dangers of commercial fishing are the stuff of modern legend. Fans of the blockbuster book and film, The Perfect Storm, and popular reality-TV shows such as Deadliest Catch and Swords: Life on the Line would hardly be surprised by the fact that nearly every year, America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics ranks commercial fishing as that country’s most lethal job. Adjusted to the size of the workforce, the 2008 fatality rate for US fishermen was five times that of truck drivers, eight times that of police officers and 19 times that of firefighters.
Tragedies at sea are often viewed as uncontrollable acts of God. Until a couple of decades ago, marine-supply stores offered steel-soled boots as standard gear: inevitable death at sea was so ingrained in many fishermen’s attitudes that, when the worst happened, they just wanted to sink quickly to the bottom. The truth is that – except in the popular imagination – an “angry ocean” is almost never the primary cause of fatal accidents.
Instead, the industry’s high mortality rate is the result of an unromantic but entirely preventable mix of flawed decision-making, inadequate survival training, poorly maintained safety equipment and a lack of government oversight that allows US fishing boats to sink at the rate of one every three days.
Between 1992 and 2007, a staggering 1 903 American commercial fishing vessels sank, according to a comprehensive US Coast Guard report. As a direct result, 507 people died, accounting for more than half of the 934 commercial fishing deaths during that 16-year period. Most of the remaining fatalities were due to falls overboard or a variety of grisly equipmentrelated accidents.
It’s no coincidence that the number of lost boats and lives is far higher for fishing than for any other type of waterborne industry. Passenger ferries, cargo ships and virtually all other commercial boats are held to much higher regulatory standards. All but the largest factory-style fishing vessels remain uninspected, which means that ensuring a boat’s seaworthiness – including the strength of its hull, the stability of its design and the integrity of its watertight compartments – is solely up to the ship’s owners. The only federal law governing fishing-boat safety mandates survival equipment for what should happen after an accident occurs.
“The level of fishing vessel safety standards is analogous to requiring parachutes for an aircraft crew, but only marketing voluntary measures to encourage a mechanically sound aircraft and a competent pilot and crew,” wrote the authors of a 1999 Coast Guard-commissioned report on fishing fatalities. “It’s tragic,” says Richard Hiscock, a fishing- policy expert and former fisherman. “We’ve been trying to get fishing vessels inspected since the 1940s. If you stop to think about how many families would not have been torn apart had we done that, it’s mind-boggling.”
Hiscock helped to draft legislation, now languishing in Congressional committee, that is crucial to lowering fishing’s unacceptable death toll. If the bill passes, the new regulations would require Coast Guard inspections for all fishing boats of more than 15,2 m, as well as stronger construction requirements for new boats, more stringent regulations for officer licencing, and mandatory crew training. Meanwhile, boats keep sinking.
In March 2009, the 21,6 m scalloper Lady Mary sank 105 km off the New Jersey coast, taking the lives of six of the seven men on board. Although the Coast Guard investigative report has yet to be released, it’s evident that, as in the majority of vessel losses, a cascade of human errors and events contributed to the death toll on the scalloper, which was part of a fleet that – along with the northeast groundfishery, the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery and the Dungeness crab fleet in Oregon – has recently proven even more deadly than the infamous Alaskan fisheries.
“One of the biggest commonalities comes down to just being lazy with your operations,” says Coast Guard Commander Kyle McAvoy. Take the case of the Alaska Ranger, a 56 m trawler that sank in the Bering Sea in 2008. The ship flooded from the bottom up, and when the rising water shorted out the electrical system, the massive boat shifted into reverse.
engines from the wheelhouse, the ship’s officers weren’t trained to do so. As a result, the crew was forced to enter the life rafts from a moving vessel. More than half failed – and five ultimately died.
Operator error also played a significant role in the loss of the Big Valley, an Alaskan crab boat that went down in 3° seas in January 2005. Although the Coast Guard had a mandatory dockside inspection programme for Bering Sea crabbers, the Big Valley’s captain dodged his examination and left port with almost twice as many pots piled on deck as his ship could safely carry, which left the boat top-heavy and unstable. It capsized and sank. Just one of the six men on board survived – a crew member who had chosen to sleep with his own personal survival suit stowed safely by his bed.
As for the New Jersey scalloper Lady Mary, survivor testimony and examination of the wreck indicate that flooding started in the stern and spread quickly, most likely as a result of compromised watertight boundaries in the vessel. “Once you get progressive flooding, you’re in trouble,” McAvoy says. “What would prevent that? It’s training, maintaining your watertight hatches, the crew knowing to keep watertight doors shut in certain conditions – somebody making sure they’re keeping them shut.”
Though further Coast Guard oversight of fishing fleets could eliminate many of the egregious structural and mechanical problems that sink a lot of ships, improving the attitudes, traditions and safety culture among fishing-boat officers and their crews is just as critical. After the Lady Mary disaster, lawyers for the ship’s owner (whose two sons, one of them the boat’s captain, died when it sank) argued that a passing cargo ship hit the vessel.
No obvious physical evidence of such a collision has been found. But even if another vessel was involved, it’s hard to explain how an alert captain or watch stander would not have spotted an approaching container ship in time to make an adequate mayday call. That is, until you consider that autopsy reports found both the captain and his brother had marijuana in their systems when they died.
An inexorable progression of errors doomed the Katmai, the Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation found. Any one of them would have placed the ship and its crew in harm’s way; together, they were a death sentence. Although the Katmai’s captain had received a weather forecast of hurricane-force winds and 7 m seas more than two days before the disaster, he delayed the decision to head for shelter. The onboard weather fax that would have delivered regular updates and satellite images of the worsening conditions was down. It was out of ink and set to a frequency in Hawaii, the captain later told investigators.
Although the Katmai had watertight doors, they were not in good condition, and the crew often left them open at sea. A crack in the hull had been repaired improperly. That breach, the Coast Guard investigation determined, might have been the source of the initial flooding.
Like dozens of other boats now decaying on the ocean floor, the Katmai had been converted for a new type of fishing without an updated stability report, prepared by a qualified marine architect, that would have advised the crew on how to safely load the boat. (For boats of less than 24 m, there is no requirement for such a report, though there should be.) The ship’s final report dated back two conversions, to 1996, and assumed a maximum 27 000 kg of fish in the hold. At the time of the sinking, there were more than 54 000 kg of cod on board and at least 7 000 kg of cod pots on deck.
“There was guidance on board for the captain to follow,” says Coast Guard Commander Malcolm McLellan, whose report on the Katmai disaster recommended that captains be licenced and that they be required to undergo stability training. “He knew he exceeded that. He doubled it. As they say, fishing was good, and they just put it in the hold.”
The second wave that hit Guy Schroder’s life raft took the roof with it. Several men were thrown right through the protective covering, which also serves as a beacon to searchers above. Although the lost canopy had been bright orange, the rest of the raft was grey and black, making it even more difficult for the ejected fishermen to find their way back to the shelter as they fought through raging, three-storey waves.
“You got these huge, breaking seas that are just taking everything out with them,” Schroder recalls. “Our raft had little or no ballast bags. We were getting thrown out of it all night and somehow finding it again in the pitch dark. I’m not just talking about three or four flips; I’m talking about all night long, for hours and hours.”
Despite the obvious shortcomings of the Katmai’s survival gear, the equipment was perfectly acceptable by legal standards. “It’s crazy,” says Jennifer Lincoln, an injury epidemiologist and commercial fishing safety expert with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “A 1980 life raft should not be able to be used in 2008 and meet regulations.”
That single federal law governing commercial fishing boats – the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988 – mandates that ships carry life rafts, fire extinguishers, signal flares and a registered emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). In cold waters, a full-body neoprene survival suit is required for every person on board. Modest as it is, the law has had a big impact. After its implementation in the early 1990s, the death rate among shipwrecked crewmen fell by close to 50 per cent.
Still, the law contains significant blind spots. Many of the survival suits ships carry today are the same ones owners bought when the 1988 law went into effect. Neoprene stiffens and deteriorates as it ages, becoming prone to rips, holes and split seams – any of which can be fatal in frigid northern seas. The suits need expiry dates, Lincoln argues. They should also be equipped with small but powerful strobe lights and personal locator beacons with GPS.
And life rafts? They should meet the standards set by the international Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) treaty, meaning large ballast pockets, a reliable sea anchor and doorway ramps to help people board the raft from the water.
Then there’s training. “Fishermen have to know how to use their equipment,” says Lincoln, who has found an association between survivors and those who have completed formal safety courses. “If you are going to go fish, at a minimum you should have an 8-hour marine-safety class on cold-water survival.”
Sixteen harrowing hours passed before an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter spotted the life raft with Guy Schroder and just three other fishermen remaining inside. Coast Guard rescuers airlifted the men from the mangled raft, which by then had also lost its floor and resembled a giant, battered black inner tube. It had drifted 56 km from where the Katmai went down.
A couple of hours earlier, the rescue crew had found a body in the waves, still outfitted in a neoprene survival suit. Two good Samaritan fishing vessels eventually recovered four other men – also with no vital signs. The four fishermen in Schroder’s raft were the only members of the 11-person crew to make it out of the Bering Sea alive.
“I told them, if you lose the raft, you’re out of the pool,” Schroder says of the men who were thrown into the sea and never found their way back, including his friend Carlos Zabala. “You only have a few hours in those conditions. You’re swallowing a bunch of big greeners. There’s no way you can breathe,” he says. “You just can’t. You can’t do it.”
Unless, that is, your life raft is, in fact, a sturdy, reliable shelter. Or, better yet, the regulatory and cultural safeguards are in place to ensure your boat never sinks in the first place.
Industry Safety : How to Improve the Odds
By the time the general alarm sounded on the Alaska Ranger in March 2008, flooding that started in the rudder room had spread to the trawler’s second level. The crew quickly realised it was too late to control it, and abandoned ship. Of the 47 people on board, 42 survived. As in many deadly sinkings, the Alaska Ranger was doomed in part by its lack of watertight integrity.
Quick-closing watertight doors – dogged with a single turn of a wheel or push of a lever – would be a lifesaving upgrade from the cumbersome models on many ships. Proper maintenance and training is critical. According to surviving Alaska Ranger crew members, there was a company culture of leaving watertight doors open at sea. Wheelhouse alarms that alert officers to doors left ajar can act as an important backup.
Seas were calm on the night in July 2009 that a crew member on board the 18 m Texas shrimper Wylie Milam discovered that 47-year-old Juan Lara was missing. A 51-hour Coast Guard search that covered 7 000 square kilometres failed to find him. Lara was one of 155 US fishermen who died after falling off their vessels between 2000 and 2009 – more than half were alone on deck at the time.
A handful of marine-supply companies now manufacture compact, wireless sensors designed to be worn in a pocket or clipped to work gear. The sensors activate automatically if submerged in seawater and set off an alarm in the wheelhouse, alerting crew mates to the emergency. For a solo sailor, some models will kill a boat’s engine after a fall into water – often a fisherman’s only hope of getting back on board and out of the ocean alive.
When Yasumi Abe got tangled in a net and was pulled overboard from the Bering Sea groundfish trawler Alaska Warrior in July 2009, he was not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). In fact, not one of the 155 man-overboard deaths in the past decade involved a PFD. The crew spotted Abe, clinging to the net, but he quickly vanished. The shock of cold seas often causes victims to suck in water and sink.
With adequate flotation, most people can survive at least an hour, even in the coldest waters. For a recent field study, more than 250 fishermen tested modern PFDs. The winners? The Mustang Survival Inflatable Work Vest, which blows up automatically with water pressure, and the Regatta Fisherman’s Oilskins, a European-made rain-gear brand with foam built into the bib of the coveralls. Both were deemed easy to get on, easy to clean and unobtrusive to wear.
Your safety at sea
Some of the hazards that make commercial fishing so dangerous can also prove deadly to anyone who spends time on the water. More than 700 Americans died in recreational boating accidents last year – many of them preventable.
1. Wear a life jacket.
US Coast Guard studies show that nine out of 10 drowning victims weren’t wearing a personal flotation device. Of those who drowned with a jacket on, many wore models that didn’t keep their heads out of the water.
2. Invest in a marine radio.
A cellphone isn’t reliable at sea. A quality radio is affordable, provides weather updates, can be synced to your boat’s GPS, and has a button that lets you send an automatic mayday call.
3. File a float plan.
Be sure to let someone know where you are headed and when you’ll return – then stick to it.
4. Stay sober.
Excessive drinking impairs judgment and depth perception, leading to 16 per cent of all fatal boat accidents.
- Kalee Thompson wrote about the Alaska Ranger in her book Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History, published in June.