Fishing in Alaska Becoming Less Deadly

By: AP
By: AP

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Commercial fishing in Alaska is a killer, but it's not as deadly as it used to be.

The recent sinking of the Alaska Ranger fishing boat off the Aleutian Islands killed five people, making it one of the worst accidents in an industry where crew members can fall overboard, get crushed by swinging crab pots or get dragged into the deep after becoming entangled in a line.

Despite the dangers, the industry showcased on the popular Discovery Channel show "Deadliest Catch" appears to be getting safer. Fewer fishermen have died in recent years, and experts say it is because of a stepped-up safety program and changes in the way fishing is regulated.

Don Lane, a 55-year-old fisherman from Homer, knows the risks of pulling fish and crab from the sea. He's been doing it more than half his life.

"It will kill a certain number of people. It always has," Lane said. "You have to be really careful you are not one of them."

In the 1970s, fishermen largely accepted some deaths as part of the business.

"It was kind of part of the game, and fate will have its way," said Jim Herbert, 60, of Seward, who was skipper of the Cape Chacon in 1987 when the boat got hit by large waves and capsized. One crew member was killed.

But that attitude of acceptance is fading, along with the old ways of fishing.

In the 1970s and '80s, boats were permitted to catch as much fish as possible during specific periods lasting anywhere from a few frantic days to two weeks. That pressured skippers to ignore crew fatigue and bad weather, sometimes working around the clock seeking a larger catch.

Now catches are governed by quotas assigned to each vessel, allowing crews to do their fishing over a span of weeks or months.

Lane, who skippers a fishing boat, said the changes helped him make better decisions: "I don't push it because at the end of the day, I am past the romance part. You can't make money in bad weather."

The other major change came in the form of stricter safety requirements.

In the early 1990s, the Coast Guard began requiring vessels to offer safety training, conduct monthly drills and keep emergency equipment on board, including "immersion suits" that protect crew members if they fall into the water.

Several years later, the agency also offered a dockside program to reduce stability problems on some vessels.

An average of 37 fishermen died each year in Alaska in the 1980s. After the safety improvements and the regulatory changes, the rate of fishing-related fatalities was cut by more than half between 1990 and 2006. In the last five years, the average number has been about 11 a year.

"It has gotten safer if you look at the big picture. It is probably getting safer all the time," said Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association in Sitka.

The "Deadliest Catch" has been a hit with viewers for its chilling depiction of crab fishing in the Bering Sea, but real-life Alaska fishermen don't need to be reminded of the dangers they face.

One of the worst fishing disasters in the Bering Sea happened in 2001, when the trawler Arctic Rose sank, taking all 15 hands with it. The Coast Guard's best guess is that a huge wave crashed across the vessel's deck when a rear hatch was tied open, perhaps to allow air to circulate or for the crew to take smoke breaks.

The ship went down in just four to eight minutes.

In 1981, nine people died when the captain of the St. Patrick ordered his crew to abandon ship near Kodiak Island out of fear that rising water in the bilge would cause the boat's battery to explode and sink the vessel.

Two crew members who put on immersion suits were the only survivors. The boat never sank.

Just as tragic but not as well publicized are the single fatalities, like the young skipper killed in 1995 when his rain jacket became entangled in a fishing line, which pulled him into a winch and slammed his head against the deck. In 1999, a 32-year-old deck hand was killed when a boom on a salmon boat collapsed after a wire cable snapped.

Despite the safety reforms, one-third of the 948 work-related deaths in Alaska between 1990 and 2006 were fishermen, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Each year, 20 to 40 vessels are still lost in accidents, although the survival rate for those onboard has increased from 73 percent in 1991 to 96 percent in 2004.

On Sunday, it took just 15 minutes for the Alaska Ranger to sink after its rudder room began taking on water. The entire crew, including those who died after spending hours in the frigid waters, wore immersion suits. Forty-two of them were rescued.

"That right there is a miracle," said Lane, the veteran skipper. "That means those guys were practicing. A crew that doesn't practice when mayhem sets in, about half of them totally forget what they're doing out of fear."


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