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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 6:01 AM EDT

From 2000 to 2010, 545 commercial fishermen died in the US, reported NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of these deaths occurred after a vessel disaster, with boats sometimes swallowed by the sea. Another 30 percent involved fishermen falling overboard. Other deaths came from accidents on board, or while crew were diving or injured on shore.

Atlantic scallop fishermen suffered some of the highest death tolls, with a fatality rate more than 100 times the national average from 2000 to 2009, and some of the industry's most notable disasters.

In December 2004, vast swells rolled the New Bedford, Massachusetts, scalloping boat Northern Edge on its side, plunging the crew of six into frigid waters 45 miles off Nantucket. One man survived, making the Northern Edge New England's deadliest fishing tragedy since the sinking of Gloucester, Massachusetts's, Andrea Gail in 1991, a case that inspired The Perfect Storm book and movie.

"I often wonder what is the true price of a pound of scallops," fisherman Christopher Gaudiello said at the funeral for Northern Edge victims.

Mattera said the work can be brutal. "If you went scalloping for 10 days and stood in that box for 18 hours a day, day after day after day, you would not believe how fatigued you are," Mattera said. "You cannot compare it to anything. Shuck and shuck and shuck, you would not believe the monotony. You are in constant pain…You are bringing a steel cage swinging in the seas. Man, that stuff hits you, you are a dead man or you are breaking hands, you are cracking skulls."

A scalloper at work in New Bedford, Mass.  Jesse Costa/WBURA scalloper at work in New Bedford, Mass. Jesse Costa/WBURThere's a human cost to the industry push back and congressional inaction, experts say.

Richard Hiscock, a longtime marine safety advocate from Vermont who worked as a US House staffer in helping to write safety laws, said government is too often "reactive to casualties."

Marine safety laws on the books, he said, "have been what I described as the little Dutch boy going around putting his finger in the dike," Hiscock said. "Every time there's a major casualty there will be a lot of hubbub and there will be an investigation to see what we can do to improve the existing statutes and plug a loophole.

"And they've been doing this since 1838."

Hiscock draws a contrast between the Federal Aviation Administration, which has broad power to ensure airplanes fly safely, and the Coast Guard. "Congress has given the Coast Guard little bits and pieces of authority, not the broad authority," he said.

The Coast Guard's website includes a Hiscock report, "The Tragedy of Missed Opportunities," that details failed reform attempts dating years. In 1999, a Coast Guard task force issued "Living to Fish, Dying to Fish," a report citing the industry's high casualty rate and lack of deep reform.

"Despite long-standing recognition of the serious hazards of commercial fishing, a long succession of proposed laws were not enacted," the report concludes. "Many fishermen accept that fishing is dangerous, and lives are often lost. Many of those harvesting the bounty of our ocean frontier staunchly defend the independent nature of their profession, and vehemently oppose outside interference."

Indeed, many fishermen have fiercely opposed government regulations—challenging, for instance, fish catch quotas some say hasten dangers at sea.

Reform's Piecemeal Rollout

Strides have come, but slowly.

In 1988, Congress passed the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act, requiring fishing boats to carry survival craft, personal flotation devices and other safety equipment on board.

The regulations went into effect in 1991. A year later, the Coast Guard sought authority to inspect fishing boats. Approval never came.

"Whether the industry was lobbying enough or Congress didn't see the need for it, we just weren't given the authority," said Jack Kemerer, division chief of the US Coast Guard's Fishing Vessels Division.

Kemerer said the 1988 law and subsequent tweaks have helped drop death tolls from even higher numbers in the 1980s. "There have been improvements based on the law and safety programs and safety initiatives," he said.

"But," he added, "fishing still remains the most hazardous occupation in the country."

In 2007, the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held hearings, citing a string of tragedies from Alaska to Maine that had taken 22 lives in recent months.

A core of veteran fishermen, their spouses and safety advocates told the panel how they had lost friends to the seas.

"If we had regulated airline safety the same way we have regulated fishing vessel safety, all passengers on an aircraft would be issued a parachute and be trained in how to use it," said Jerry Dzugan, executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. "The fishing vessel safety act focuses on survivability after a vessel loss. By anyone's definition, this is a reactive, rather than a proactive approach to casualties."

Maine lobster fisherman Robert Baines described finding two teenage boys—aspiring fishermen—drowned in the cold April waters after their boat, inadequate for the weather conditions, capsized. One boy's body washed ashore; Baines found the other in the water. "I will never forget that unnecessary tragedy," he said. When the 1988 law passed, he said, the Maine Lobstermen's Association opposed safety requirements for state registered vessels. "Times have changed," said Baines, chair of Maine's Commercial Fishing Safety Council.

Oberstar, then the transportation committee chair, concluded that the government needed a "much more vigorous program" and national standards to safeguard the industry.

He too draws a contrast between the FAA's powers and those handed the Coast Guard. "Safety in aviation shall be maintained at the highest possible level, not the level industry can afford," Oberstar said, and flights can be grounded with a mechanic's signature. "That's the kind of standard we need for Coast Guard inspectors."

That standard has not come, but another reform swell passed with the US Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010. Congress approved an amendment requiring the Coast Guard to examine safety equipment on commercial fishing vessels every two years.

"The problem with a boat, when something happens or breaks, you are out in the middle of the ocean. It's not like you are out at the curb and can call AAA."

Now, fishermen can seek voluntary examinations of their safety equipment. If they pass, they get a sticker. If they fail the so-called "No Fault Exam," no violation is issued. Captains of failed boats do risk citation if they take to the seas and happen to be boarded by the Coast Guard. The 2007 congressional hearing, however, revealed that less than 10 percent of the commercial fishing fleet took advantage of the voluntary program.

But even that voluntary review couldn't ensure fishermen knew how to use the equipment. "That's like taking your car in to go in for a safety sticker, and then you get into it and you don't buckle up and you drive down the highway," said Rodney Avila, a New England fisherman and safety advocate.

Under the new rules, which could go into effect later this year or next, the Coast Guard will check to ensure safety equipment is up to date and boats have proper life preservers, survival suits, life rafts, flares, alarms and documentation. The Coast Guard has not yet decided what consequences would follow a failed exam—but one possibility is that the boat would not be allowed to sail.

The rules also call for enhanced training of fishermen and lay the groundwork for safety compliance programs for older or substantially changed vessels.

Still, the pending mandatory dockside exams do not call for Coast Guard inspections of the vessels themselves. That would entail a "cradle-to-grave program" in which the Coast Guard issues a certificate of inspection, re-inspects the boat every year and conducts an out of water inspection every five years.

There's a big difference, the Coast Guard's Kemerer said, between an exam and a fuller inspection. "Safety would certainly be improved," he said.

To some, having equipment exams but not the vessel inspections is like checking a car's seat belts and air bags, but never getting around to the engine and frame.

Who is to blame?

"That's the $64,000 question," Hiscock said. "It's a shared responsibility. Congress has never had the courage to do it, and the industry has never pushed for it."

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