ASTORIA – Commercial fishermen know they have a greater chance of dying on the job than do any other workers tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Dungeness crab fishery is the most dangerous fishery on the West Coast. And it’s the third-most fatal fishery in the nation, according to the National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH).

At the same time, local crabbers say it doesn’t take that much to give yourself and your crew a fighting chance to return home.

We’ll look at the safety measures available to fishing crews. But first, what makes commercial fishing so treacherous?

Weather and boats

The March 10 disappearance of the Warrenton-based fishing vessel Lady Cecelia and its four-person crew was a tragic reminder of how hazardous the waters around here can be.

A U.S. Coast Guard investigation continues as to what might have caused the Lady Cecelia to capsize. But whether it was equipment, man or nature, she wasn’t alone that weekend. Two other fishing vessels also found themselves in distress March 9-10.

One, the FV Chevelle, ran aground in Newport. Its three-person crew was rescued by helicopter.

The other, the FV Jabez, was capsized by large breakers at the mouth of the Rogue River near Gold Beach. Its two-person crew has yet to be found.

According to NIOSH, 545 commercial fishermen died working in U.S. waters between the years 2000 and 2010. There was an average of nine deaths annually off the West Coast alone.

NIOSH reports that 40 percent of fatal vessel disasters were due to crossing a bar in hazardous conditions.

Between 2000 and 2009, 21 crabbers died as a result of 10 vessel disasters. Six more crabbers died from falling overboard.

“One of the most obvious reasons is it’s a wintertime fishery,” said John Corbin, a partner in three boats and chair of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “You’re out there in the most inclement time of the year.”

Longtime fisherman Martin McMaster summed it up succinctly: “You have bad weather and small boats.”

Dangers of crabbing

Nationwide, vessel disasters – capsizing, sinking, fire and flooding – cause the majority of fishing deaths.

As if those dangers weren’t enough, crabbing is particularly risky because of the nature of the work and the fishery.

Harvesting that sweet meat requires boats to carry stacks of crab pots on deck. Boats are licensed to have up to 500 crab pots, each weighing 60 to 125 pounds.

All that extra weight above deck raises the boat’s center of gravity, making it more vulnerable to capsizing, Corbin said.

The crew also is threatened with falling overboard when the crab posts shift, said Mike Rudolph, who conducts safety training for commercial fishermen.

Additionally, setting and retrieving pots requires the crew to work at the edge of the deck. And many crabbing boats have lower bulwarks than other fishing vessels, said Rudolph.

Not to mention the hazardous nature of the fishery. “We’ve had a number of years when the launch day – when you can get your pots soaking – is a stormy day,” Rudolph said. Yet despite the weather, fishers rush to get to the best spots.

“It’s still a very competitive fishery,” he said. “Here, you catch as much as you can as fast as you can, come in and sell it, and get back out.”

Dungeness crab is the most valuable single-species fishery in Oregon, according to the state Crab Commission. Over the past decade, a single boat could bring in $5 million to $44 million.

This year, the yields have been low. So with a strong demand, the price of crab has been especially high.

McMaster reported selling his last load of crab for $5.25 per pound. “We’ve had exceptionally good prices … There’s even talk of it going up to $6 because there’s so little around,” he said.

Of course, that’s not all profit. “We’re paying very high prices for fuel these days,” McMaster said. “Our expenses are up.”

And even the smallest boats have two crew members and equipment maintenance to finance.

Although the crab season lasts from Dec. 1 to August 14, up to 75 percent of the season’s harvest is brought in during the first eight weeks of the season, according to the Crab Commission’s website.

“It’s kind of the style of the fishery that there’s a lot of pressure on them in the beginning,” McMaster said.

“Being a high-dollar fishery probably adds to all of that,” Corbin agreed. “The fishermen are probably a little hungrier. They probably stay out a little longer, set a few more pots.”

This year, “there was less crab, so there was more demand,” he said. “So that combination makes people more likely to push limits.”

Improving the odds

Every boat is required to have survival suits for each crew member. And at least one person on board must be trained to lead monthly safety drills.

Rudolph has been conducting safety exams and training fishermen since 1994. He now is a civilian employee of the U.S. Coast Guard and teaches AMSEA safety courses from Westport, Wash., to Brookings, Ore.

Before moving to Oregon six years ago, Rudolph spent considerable time in Alaska, where marine safety is taught in many of the state’s high schools.

“When I came down here … I was surprised that the local schools don’t have that,” he said.

On the other hand, “Fishermen, in general, are very independent people… That last American spirit,” he said. Many aren’t happy that the Coast Guard requires safety training.

“I don’t like the government in my knickers, either,” said Rudolph. Still, he said, it’s clear that using safety gear and practicing emergency procedures saves lives.

“We’ve seen a significant shift in the performance of drills, the execution of drills and the survivability of people,” said Rudolph. “We’re seeing, with the younger fishermen that are coming up, that safety is now second-nature.”

McMaster noted that wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) on deck is one of the simplest, cheapest and easiest safety measures to take. “It’s a cheap insurance policy,” he said. “It could mean your life, if you’re positively buoyant.”

Of the 20 West Coast commercial fishermen who died from falling overboard between 2000 and 2009, none was wearing a PFD, according to NIOSH.

“I fished for 30 years before I started wearing any flotation,” said McMaster. He added that with the new inflatable gear, he’s seeing more fishers wearing a PFD at all times.

Corbin said, “We have lots of requirements that the Coast Guard has put on us as far as equipment we have to have on board. But I take it far beyond that.”

He said he has added long streamers to life rafts and survival suits so someone overboard in open water is more visible. He has also added personal EPIRBs, or distress beacons, to the survival suits, and GPS units and VHF radios to his life rafts.

“It’s just little additions like that, that don’t cost much but are well worth it and might save your life,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to up your odds.”

Corbin knows what he’s talking about. Thirty years ago, he was on a boat that sank near Kodiak.

The crew was lucky, because the water was calm and Corbin had put out a call to another boat before his sank.

“It was very calming, talking to someone on the radio and knowing they were coming,” he said. So instead of fearing for their lives, his crew could be frustrated about losing a full load of halibut.

“My attitude has always been that if you have employees on board, you owe it to them to give them a safe platform and to give them the most odds possible of going home,” Corbin said.

“It’s a dangerous business.”


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