This is a post where I feel compelled to put the disclaimer right up front:  The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the United States Coast Guard. (There – now that we’ve got that out of the way….)

Alright gang, I’ve officially had enough. While at work, a friend sent a link to a recent NPR article about how deadly commercial fishing is and where the deadliest fishing grounds really are (hint: it’s not Alaska.)   Journalist Curt Nickish pit two very different ideas in opposition using two local fishing captains as champions of either side of the argument.  It’s an old argument about the balance between regulation and the freedom of an industry to self-regulate. Captain Fred Mattera has figured out – from one bad experience after another – that the industry needs a change in its safety culture, and another experienced skipper (Bill Amaru) believes he knows best how to be safe out there and doesn’t need anyone telling him what to do on the water.

I picked a side and sent my friend the following response:

If mandatory use of flotation for those working on deck was practiced (not an over-regulation – dock workers do it for goodness sake) then “America’s Most Dangerous Job” would be more correctly assigned to combat troops in Afghanistan.

In 2007 (if memory serves) there were 25 fatalities on the Bearing – 25 weren’t wearing lifejackets.  If they had, being a school teacher in Houston that year would have been more deadly than being a crabber.  Scallopers in New England suffer from the same problem – a culture of false machismo and a tradition of “You’re dead out here anyway” …BS.

Like their Alaskan counterparts – they are their own worst enemies.  Guys like Amaru who doesn’t want “the feds” inspecting his boat and has “a pretty good idea how to keep safe” exemplify the culture of “mug up” fisheries, thinking that tough means safe and that rules are for sissies.  Guys like Mattera learned the hard way that tough is crap, and the culture needs to change.

I’ve been reading fisheries mishap reports and the death stats on this industry as closely as anyone – and I have been on one or two (read: more than 50, I lost count) of these vessels when tough wasn’t enough.  In all that time I have never seen a single case (besides the rare non-injury medical emergency) where the cause of death couldn’t be traced back to a bad decision made by the captain before leaving the dock.

Calling fisheries of any kind “the most dangerous job” is like calling skateboarding the leading cause of wrist-breaks in 12 year old boys.  They are doing it to themselves – I’m not assigning the blame to the skateboard.  Until fisherman develop a culture of safety that screams “I need checklists, rules, and inspections (mine or “the feds”) to be safe” they simply aren’t going to be.

It is true that fishing is a risky business, but so too the business of at-sea rescue.  No one in the Coast Guard minds at all doing it – but personally, I’d be happier if the reason they (I fly a desk now) are called out to  risk their lives didn’t include “professional mariners” acting like cowboys.  What do I mean? – from the NPR article: “Not one of those who fell overboard and drowned was wearing a life jacket.”  So many of these guys are dying because while on a pitching and rolling deck, covered in trip hazards and lines and heavy swinging overhead equipment, they aren’t willing to put on a standard work-type life jacket. “We don’t need the feds telling us what to do out here” …but they certainly call the feds to fish them out of tight spot when being a tough guy doesn’t work out.

Also true is that commercial fishing vessels suffer far more disastrous failures than other commercial vessels.  They catch fire more and capsize more, they sink more, run aground more; everything that is bad out there, they do more of than anyone else.  Is that just the nature of fishing, or are these things happening to them more because they are one of the least regulated and inspected commercial operation in the U.S.?

I hope Captain Mattera can change the culture in his industry, at least locally. Because this problem is one that will have to be worked out internally I think.  Regulations as stringent as those imposed on other maritime operators would certainly put many fishing boats out of service forever and the Coast Guard inspections program would have to be much (much) larger.  For my part, I’m not keeping quiet anymore. This has to be kept real.  Deadliest Catch?  Most Dangerous Job? I don’t think so – I think that the culture in their industry makes fisherman the most Dangerous Workers.  Regardless of the statistics, I’m not going to give much of the blame to the job itself.


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