ASTORIA - Almost every commercial fisherman (and his wife) keeps a mental list of vessels that have recently capsized, lost a crewmember or disappeared altogether.
People in the fishing industry have a higher chance dying on the job than any other industry tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Dungeness crab fishery is the most dangerous fishery on the West Coast and the third most fatal fishery in the nation, according to the National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH).
But, local crabbers say that it doesn’t take much to give yourself and your crew a fighting chance to come home.
“The Dungeness fishery on the West Coast in particular, is one of the deadliest fisheries,” said Mike Rudolph, who conducts safety trainings for commercial fishermen.
Bad weather and small boats
The March 10 disappearance of the Warrenton-based fishing vessel Lady Cecelia and its 4-person crew was a tragic reminder of how hazardous the waters around us can be.
A U.S. Coast Guard investigation continues on 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 on March 9 and 10.
The FV Chevelle ran aground in Newport. Its 3-person crew was rescued by helicopter. And the FV Jabez was capsized by large breakers at the mouth of the Rogue River in Gold Beach. Its 2-person crew was not found.
According to NIOSH, between 2000 and 2010, 545 commercial fishermen died fishing in U.S. waters, with an average of nine deaths a year off the West Coast.
Nationwide, vessel disasters cause the majority of fishing deaths. Vessel disasters include capsizing, sinking, fire and flooding.
Between 2000 and 2009, 21 crabbers died as a result of 10 vessel disasters. Sixteen other vessel disasters occurred during that time, but the crews survived. NIOSH reports that 40 percent of fatal vessel disasters were due to crossing a bar in hazardous conditions. 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 the situation up, “You have bad weather and small boats.”
The lure of the crab
But crabbing is also made more dangerous by 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, which weigh 60 to 125 pounds each. All that extra weight above deck raises the boat’s center of gravity, making it more vulnerable to capsizing, Corbin said.
Shifting crab pots can also be a danger to the crew. Rudolph said that once a stack of pots is untied, it may shift and could fall, pushing someone overboard.
Additionally, setting pots 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, he said.
The way the fishery operates may also amplify the hazards of the work.
“We’ve had a number of years when the launch day, when you can get your pots soaking, is a stormy day,” Rudolph said.
Despite the weather people rush to get 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.”
This year the yields have been low, and with strong demand, the price of crab has been especially high.
McMaster reported having sold 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.
Dungeness crab is the most valuable single-species fishery in Oregon, according to the Crab Commission. Over the past 10 years, a single boat could bring in $5 million to $44 million.
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 crewmembers and equipment maintenance to pay.
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 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 said. “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.”
Every boat is required to have survival suits for each crewmember and one person on board who is trained to lead monthly safety drills.
Rudolph has been doing safety exams and training fishermen since 1994. He is now a civilian employee of the U.S. Coast Guard and teaches AMSEA safety courses from Westport, Wash., to Brookings.
Before moving to Oregon six years ago, Rudolph had spent a lot of time in Alaska, where marine safety is taught at the high schools of many fishing communities.
“When I came down here… I was surprised that the local schools don’t have that,” he said. said that some fishermen begin a course angry that the Coast Guard requires them to be there, but that most loosen up pretty quickly.
“Fishermen, in general, are very independent people … that last American spirit,” he said. “I don’t like the government in my knickers either,” but 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 second nature.”
Among the 20 West Coast commercial fishermen who died from a fall overboard between 2000 and 2009, none of them were wearing a personal flotation device (PFD), according to NIOSH.
Wearing a PFD on deck is one of the simplest, cheapest and easiest safety measures to take. “It’s a cheap insurance policy,” McMaster said. “It could mean your life if you’re positively buoyant.”
“I fished for 30 years before I started wearing any flotation,” he said. But he said, with the new inflatable gear, he’s seeing more and more people using PFDs 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,” Corbin said.
He has added long streamers to life rafts and survival suits so that a person in the water is more visible in the open ocean. And has added personal EPIRBs, or distress beacons, to the survival suits.
He’s also added GPS units and VHF radios to the life rafts because he doesn’t want to live through one of the stories he’s read about life rafts being passed by cargo ships who never see them.
“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 in Kodiak.
The crew was lucky because the water was calm and Corbin had gotten a call out to another boat before they 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, the crew could be frustrated about losing a full load of halibut.
“My attitude has always been, if you have an employee 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. We put in long hours and it’s hard work … It’s not always Swan Lake and rose petals.”