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Fishing Without a Safety Net

Commercial fishing is America's deadliest job. So why is it virtually unregulated?

| Wed Aug. 22, 2012 5:01 AM EDT

As a safety instructor looks on, a fisherman jumps into the water in Narragansett, Rhode Island, during a safety drill. Commercial fishing is the deadliest job in America.

"Get your panic out now!"

Veteran fisherman Fred Mattera stands atop a fishing trawler at the Point Judith Harbor in Narragansett, Rhode Island, seagulls squawking by and a fishy mist in the air, and instructs the seven mostly young, tattooed men standing before him to pull on life-safety immersion suits that cover them from foot to head, to zip up and plunge feet first into the water. Then two groups of fishermen interlock like centipedes and take turns paddling backward until they reach a life raft where, going smallest man first, they pull in one by one.

This is survival training, and the plunge-and-rescue dry run is meant to gird the fishermen for the real thing, which comes too often in an industry beset by a high death rate and fragile federal net of protection.

Commercial fishing is the deadliest vocation in the United States. Four years running, from 2007 to 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked commercial fishing as the most dangerous occupation in the United States. From 2000 to 2010, the industry's death rate was 31 times greater than the national workplace average.

And no place, a recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report reveals, is more deadly for commercial fishermen than the East Coast. From 2000 to 2009, the NIOSH report shows, 165 fishermen died from Florida to Maine. That's more than Alaska—133 deaths—which had long been viewed as the most brutal place for commercial fishing but saw deaths dip amid a safety push. It's a greater death toll than in the Gulf of Mexico, which suffered 116 deaths, or the West Coast, with 83.

The US Coast Guard has been granted only spotty powers to safeguard commercial fishing vessels, and the industry, steeped in a tradition of independence on the high seas, has long resisted government intrusion. Yet some longtime fishermen from Alaska to New England agree the federal safety net has left workers vulnerable.

"This has been an industry where there just hasn't been a vigorous pursuit of safety at the federal level," said former congressman James Oberstar, who held fishing safety hearings in 2007 as chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

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Advocates are trying to cast a new culture of safety. The immersion training in this seaside resort is one piece of a still-in-the works campaign—and, until full federal reform comes, a key ingredient to curbing losses at sea.

"Panic sets in when you don't know what to expect," said Mattera, who scrapped his dreams of going to law school 40 years ago when a roommate took him on a fishing boat, and who now runs a company leading safety seminars. "We're taking that unknown out of it."

In this tightly knit community, nearly everyone knows someone who died at sea.

"It's like being a race car driver, one of those things you don't want to talk about," said lobster boat captain Norbert Stamps, who took part in the safety session with three crew members from his boat, Debbie Ann.

"We were all resistant in the beginning," he said of the hands-on drills. "You now realize this isn't fun and games. This is really serious stuff."

Stamps began fishing at 13 and, after more than four decades on the water, said he takes his family to services for brethren lost at sea. "I'm preparing them for the fact that someday, something might happen," he said. "You stay at sea long enough, everything happens."

A decade ago, Mattera tried to rescue a friend's 22-year-old son from a fishing hold 125 miles out to sea. The Rhode Island fisherman, Steven Follet, had collapsed, apparently after poisonous gases accumulated in the hold. Airlifted to a Cape Cod hospital, he died.

"Believe me, to this day it's haunted me," Mattera said. "Could I have gotten there five minutes sooner? All these things: My kid's the same age as his. I will never forget coming in, going to see the family. In their eyes I was a hero. In my eyes I was a failure.

"In the end he's not alive, and I swore to them, promised in his legacy we would change this culture of fishery."

At his office overlooking the docks here, Mattera keeps a small picture of Follet on the wall near his desk. "It's always in the back of your mind," he said.

Inspection push snagged

For decades, safety advocates and government regulators have pushed for mandatory inspections of the often decades-old boats that take to deep water to bring back scallops, fish, squid, and lobster.

And for decades, Congress has stood still. Despite the strikingly high death rate among the men and women who live by the boat, the federal government has never required inspections of commercial fishing boats. The Coast Guard performs voluntary exams of safety equipment, and Congress recently acted to make those dockside reviews mandatory. But the law has yet to mandate detailed inspections of the vessels themselves.

"Fishing vessels are uninspected, so the Coast Guard doesn't have jurisdiction to go on and look at the condition of the vessel. There's no standards that a fishing vessel has to be built to or maintained to. That's much different than a ferry or cargo ship," said Jennifer Lincoln, a NIOSH epidemiologist based in Alaska who leads the agency's Commercial Fishing Safety Research and Design Program.

"Every time there's a vessel loss with high numbers of lives lost and the Coast Guard has done an investigation, one of the recommendations that always comes back is that these vessels should be inspected," Lincoln said. "There's industry push back: 'That would be an expensive thing to do.'"

Pushing for sweeping safety changes, she said, is "like planting a tree." The government can press for one change, and hope it sprouts into another. NIOSH can suggest reform, but has no law-writing power. That rests with Congress.

The National Transportation Safety Board has argued for vessel inspections and, in 2010, held a forum on fishing safety. "Fishermen tolerate long absences from home, inhospitable environments, and workplaces that are teeming with heavy, dangerous equipment while constantly in motion," board member Robert L. Sumwalt III said at the hearing. "For some, the price paid is even higher: hypothermia, loss of limbs, and even death."

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