Overboard deaths have declined 47 percent in the fishing industry since 2000, possibly as result of better training, awareness and equipment.

But falls overboard are still the second leading cause of death among fishermen, with solitary operators at the most risk, according to studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“By far we see the highest numbers in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery,” followed by the Maine lobster fleet and Northwest salmon gillnetters, said Samantha Case, an epidemiologist with NIOSH who summarized researchers’ findings at Sunday’s opening of the annual Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle.

A session titled “Throw Me a Rope” was the first of several PME safety seminars, where Case and NIOSH colleague Theodore Teske talked about how fishing captains can better protect themselves and their crews.

The good news is overboard falls have declined steadily since the turn of the century. That year marked a major commercial fishing safety push by the Coast Guard, after a series of accidents off the East Coast that killed 10 fishermen in early 1999.

That brought renewed pressure for safety examinations, proper equipment and safety training and drilling for crews. Anecdotally, industry culture has appeared to shift, with better equipment and preparedness evident on the boats, the NIOSH workers said.

“We did see a decrease in man-overboard fatalities, which is incredible,” said Case. But even more could be preventable with training and proper equipment, targeted to risks particular to regions and fisheries, she said.

Taking a closer look at overboard cases, they analyzed 204 incidents, to sort out factors in why 39 or those fishermen were never recovered, and why 30 were retrieved from the ocean but did not survive.

One critical factor was whether falls were witnessed by others; in two-thirds of cases when someone saw accidents, rescues were attempted, compared to just 13 percent in cases when a fisherman went missing out of sight.

Measures to reduce falls can include raising the height of rails or adding removable rails to work areas; enclosing work decks and shelter decks; and using lifelines or harnesses. Reducing risks can include eliminating tripping and entanglement hazards on deck, and enforcing drug- and alcohol-free vessel policies. Drug or alcohol use was implicated in more than 10 percent of the cases reviewed by NIOSH research.

More comfortable personal flotation devices have become easier to wear while working, and the availability of man-overboard alarms and engine kill switches have given fishermen additional safeguards to use.

After a rescue – or self-rescue – there is still the issue of getting back into the boat. Keeping boarding ladders accessible over the side and recovery devices on crewed boats make the difference getting a shocked and hypothermic crewman back on board.

The NIOSH presentation included a video the institute released earlier this year titled “Fishing Safety Success Story: My Life Vest Saved Me.” The story of Stan Jones, an Dungeness crab fisherman from Oregon, tells how Jones and his son Rocky were setting pots in rough weather, after the older man had decided to put on his life vest just in case.

“The next thing I know, he’s going over with the pot,” Rocky Jones said in a interviews for the film. “And I had one hand on the crab pot, and I held it for five seconds, just so it wouldn’t go down on top of him… As soon as I released, I ran into the house, yelling man overboard.”

“I was sinking like a rock,” says Stan Jones. “I didn’t think I was going to go back up to the surface. I had made peace with it… I thought I was a goner. Then out of nowhere, my life vest went into action. And it just floated me right up to the surface.”

Stan Jones said he was back on the boat and drying out in less than 15 minutes – an outcome made possible by the crew’s safety training through the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

“Without the flotation device, I can say I would be a goner,” Stan Jones says in the film. “We work in an environment where if you go into the water, you may not get back out.”

While you’re at the show, check out the folks from AMSEA, at booth 4118 in the Alaska Hall.

Have you listened to this article via the audio player?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

Join the Conversation