Alaska Fishing Boat Safety

Working on a fishing boat does have inherent risks. Working as a deckhand in the winter fisheries, especially the crab fishery, is one of the most dangerous professions in the country. These boats harvest their catch in the Bering Sea in extreme winter conditions. The summer salmon fisheries are generally much safer, but working on any boat does pose some risks.

Each year a few fishermen lose their lives in accidents on the high seas off Alaska. Although the winter Bering Sea crabbing season is notoriously dangerous, even fishing in the calm waters of Cook Inlet can be dangerous at times. In 1988, Congress passed the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act to try to improve industry-wide safety standards. Since then, the number of annual fatalities in the industry has been reduced quite a bit. Nevertheless, commercial fishing is still a dangerous profession. If you’re new to the industry, you should take a number of safety precautions. Read this section carefully; it could save your finger, your hand, or even your life.

Check the Ship Out

The most time-tested – and probably still the most reliable – indicators of the safety of working on a given boat are the captain’s reputation and the boat’s general condition. If you meet the skipper in a bar and he’s obviously drunk, try to find out if heavy drinking is among his routine habits. Before signing on with a new captain, ask others on the docks whether they have ever worked for him. Most likely, someone has. If he has a reputation as an ornery, unsafe operator, someone will probably tell you. If offered a position, ask to come aboard and check out the vessel. Begin by looking over the general condition of the boat. If it obviously needs maintenance, it may not be seaworthy. Fishing industry finances have become tenuous in recent years, and owners who don’t have enough cash flow to maintain their boats often end up cutting corners on safety precautions too. Ask to see the vessel’s safety gear. The boat should have a life raft (except small vessels operating close to shore), flares, and an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon). There also should be a personal floatation device (PFD), a survival kit, and a survival (immersion) suit for everyone on board. Be sure you do all of this checking before leaving the harbor. Twenty miles out with a storm approaching is a bad time to find out the boat leaks, the skipper’s drunk, and there’s not a radio or survival gear aboard.

In addition to your own inspection of the gear, vessels fishing outside certain Coast Guard boundaries are required to conduct extensive safety drills on a monthly basis. Most fishing boats, other than large factory trawlers and processors operating in the open sea, do not fall in this category.

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