A Deadlier Catch

by Petty Officer Third Class Kelly Parker

From the frigid waters in the Gulf of Alaska to the warmer gulf streams of Santa Cruz, Calif., each year Dungeness crab fishermen prepare themselves for the harsh conditions the ocean has to offer.  They are about to embark on a dangerous hunt for a sought after meal and the reward that it brings.

Dungeness crab fishermen of the Pacific Northwest are now at the top of the list for work-related deaths in an industry that has a higher fatality rate than any other.  They have reached double the amount of fatalities than of their brother crab fishermen on the Bering Sea.

Highlighted by the popular show ‘The Deadliest Catch’ featured on the Discovery Channel, the king and opilio crab fisherman who brave the horrendous sea conditions and icy weather, have shown a significant decline in fatalities over the past years.  This decline can be partially attributed to the preventive measures implemented by the Coast Guard.

One of the Coast Guardsmen credited with the proactive approach to safe crabbing is Cmdr. Chris Woodley, Coast Guard Thirteenth District’s Chief of External Affairs.  While stationed in Alaska, Woodley was involved in numerous accident investigations regarding crab fishing vessels in the Bering Sea.

Woodley said the Coast Guard noticed a commonality with these incidents.  Capsizing due to overloading of fishing vessels, among several other safety issues, initiated the response for dockside spot inspections of all crab vessels one week prior to setting out for harvest.

“We said ‘why don’t we check these boats before they leave?'” said Woodley.  “They were [at the docks] a couple of days loading gear, and there was a good opportunity for the Coast Guard to go onboard.”

“Before the crab season opened up, [the Coast Guard] would flood all the docks with these examiners,” said Daniel Hardin, Commercial Fishing and Safety Coordinator of the Coast Guard Thirteenth District.  “What they would do is spot check these boats to make sure they had all the safety equipment they were required to have.”

These new safety regulations and practices became known as “Operation Safe Crab”.  The program was developed and implemented in 1999, and has resulted in a 75 percent decrease in fatalities for king and opilio crab fishermen.

The success of “Operation Safe Crab” in the Bering Sea made it possible for these practices to be brought down to the California and Northern Pacific coasts in 2000.

“We’ve expanded our work to target specific fisheries to try to make them safer,” said Hardin.  “We know crab season is when we lose a lot of people.”

The 2007 season for Dungeness crab fishing in the Pacific Northwest is scheduled to kick-off December 1 and will last until July.  Within the first few weeks, most of the Dungeness crab will be caught.  This causes a high density of crab vessels, making a very visible safety concern to the Coast Guard.

Hardin said the Coast Guard examiners will go wherever they have to go, and look at as many crab boats as they can get to, to make sure they are safe.

The dockside examinations and spot checks conducted by the Coast Guard include: inspecting watertight integrity, checking safety equipment such as survival suits and Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, and making sure proper safety drills are being conducted.

“They have to have the safety equipment so that they have a chance to be rescued,” said Woodley. “If you don’t get that suit on, if you don’t get in that raft and nobody knows that you’re in the water, you’re done.”

“There have been incidents where fishermen had all the equipment onboard that would save their lives and didn’t know how to use it,” said Curtis Farrell, Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Coordinator for Coast Guard Sector Portland.  “They perished because of that.”

“The next big thing that has to happen down here is the boats have to get better about doing their drills,” said Woodley.  “It’s one thing to carry the equipment onboard.  That’s a good step.  But then you have to know how to use it during an emergency.”

The uniqueness of both the area and processes in which Dungeness crab fishing is conducted has added to the result of it being the deadliest occupation in the U.S.

“Down here we have smaller boats that aren’t required to have stability letters,” said Hardin.  “The fishermen use their experience with their boats to determine how high they can pile these crab pots up.”

A stability letter helps provide vessel operators with the knowledge of the amount of weight their vessel can safely carry.  Vessels less than 79 feet are not required by law to have these letters.  Most Dungeness crab fishing is done with vessels 50 feet in length.

“None of them really know mathematically how many crab pots they can carry, so they’re winging it,” said Farrell.  “They put on as many as they got away with last year.”

“Another thing that contributes down here is the geography,” said Woodley.  “You have small boats going across hazardous bars with big waves in the winter time.”

Coastal bars are where swells can build rapidly, causing high breaking waves and powerful currents.

“You’ve got a real deep ocean and you’ve got big swells that come into a shallow bar entrance,” said Farrell.  “The mechanics of that are … a wave offshore that may only be six feet high, as it comes into shallow waters, it rises up.  It gets really big and then it breaks.”

Outreach programs such as safety days, drill conductor classes, dockside spot checks and Coast Guard Auxiliary boating safety classes are available to the public and fishing communities to help provide information and safety guidelines to lessen the number of fishermen lost at sea.

“The Coast Guard needs to work with the individual fishing groups to promote safety and bring the boats in compliance with the existing regulations,” said Woodley.  “That’s what our job is … raising awareness.”

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