Proceedings: The Coast Guard Journal of Safety at Sea

The fatal STARBOUND-VIRGO collision of Aug. 5 made those who work on the water acutely aware of safety issues. Gloucester fisherman and journalist Peter K. Prybot spoke for many when he posed such questions as: Did fatigue play a factor? Could the Russian crewmember on watch understand English? Was the electronic safety equipment on both vessels functioning and turned on? Could the fishing vessel be seen by the tanker’s radar or was it in its blind spot? What was the fishing vessel doing in a busy shipping lane? Why didn’t it take evasive action once it spotted the tanker? Those questions and more will be asked and, presumably, answered in the upcoming court proceedings; but the larger question of accident prevention remains.

A few months prior to the collision, the Marine Safety Council’s quarterly magazine, Proceedings, The Coast Guard Journal of Safety at Sea, published a superb issue devoted to fishing vessel safety. In addition to including many of the issues Prybot and others raised concerning the STARBOUND-VIRGO collision, the magazine’s editors mapped out a historical overview of efforts, legislative and otherwise, to raise the level of fishing vessel safety from the age of steam propulsion in the 1800s to the 1999 Fishing Vessel Casualty Task Force Report, “Dying to Fish-Living to Fish.”

Other articles of interest to those trying to keep fishermen safe include one from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on fishing vessel safety and fisheries management, in which the authors state: “The death rate for commercial fishers today is seven times the national average for all industries, and fishing remains perhaps the most hazardous occupation in the country.” Another comment backs up often heard complaints from fishermen: “In constant dollar terms, the average landed value of seafood caught by U. S. commercial fishers has decreased by 50 percent during the last 20 years to below 40 cents per pound.” While the statement, “Each fisher has an incentive to catch as much as he can before his competitors do” is old news, it is used to describe open access management versus the Individual Fishing Quota system used in the Alaska halibut fishery, which has resulted in a precipitous drop in accidents and search-and-rescue missions. In a chilling conclusion the authors note, “In our assessment of the factors contributing to serious accidents and loss of vessels, we found that vessel losses have been more likely during periods of depressed fish prices: an increase in the price of fish catch by $1,000 per metric ton decreased the probability of a vessel total loss by 6.3 percent.”

Ann Backus, of the Harvard School of Public Health, in an article on the cost of pursuing a career in commercial fishing in terms of accidental maiming and death, writes, “Today, commercial fishermen face a fatality risk 28 times greater when compared to all other occupations in the United States, making this industry our nation’s most hazardous.”

Such a statement leads one to wonder where she and the Woods Hole people get their statistics and why they’re at such variance with each other. Most fishermen will recognize Backus’s name and advice from the fishing safety columns she writes monthly for Commercial Fisheries News and Fishermen’s Voice, and in her Proceedings piece she reiterates the importance of wearing clothing that reduces the chance of catching on winches or other equipment and installing gag lines along the side and across the stern that can be pulled to shut down the boat’s engine to eliminate getting caught in trap lines and pulled off the boat.

There’s an article on precautions that can turn a collision into a near-miss, and a most interesting one from Sweden on a 12-year study of safety issues, fishermen’s perceptions of risks, and how to decrease their tendency towards fatalism and fearlessness.

In an excerpt from a paper, “A Nontraditional Approach to Improving Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety,” Commander William J. Uberti, of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area Marine Safety Division, states, “Statistics for Coast Guard Pacific Area Command between 1997 and 1999 … showed an average of more than 80 percent were due to human error (of which fatigue played a major role) and lack of vessel maintenance (due to financial pressures).”

Lt. Commander Ernie Morton of the 17th Coast Guard District mentions a “Top 10” Safety Check Off List of factors that have prevented accidents and ensured survival when accidents have occurred.

Several articles speak to the issue of stability and pot loading. Although they address the Bering Sea crab fisheries, the fundamentals hold for the lobster, urchin and scallop fisheries.

Not to be missed is a study from the Harvard School of Public Health on “Understanding & Preventing Lobstermen Entanglement: a Preliminary Survey,” written by Visiting Scholar in the Occupational Health Program, Jeff Ciampa, formerly of the Marine Safety Office in Portland. He’s putting his past experience to good use and continuing his efforts to bring fishermen home safely. t

To obtain a free copy of the April-July 2001 Fishing Vessel Safety issue, Vol. 58, No. 2, or to subscribe to Proceedings, which is free, address requests to Edward Hardin, Editor, Proceedings Magazine, U.S. Coast Guard, National Maritime Center, 4200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 790, Arlington, VA 22203-1804, or e-mail