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Not a single commercial Alaskan fishermen died in vessel-related incident in the 2014-2015 federal fiscal year. This was the first time this had ever occurred in commercial fishing in Alaska, which notoriously has had the highest death rate among occupations. Increased safety awareness and new fishing regulations is believed to be the primary factors in the decrease in fishermen deaths. New regulations have replaced the derby-style fishing with individual quotas, which has relieved the pressure of fishing within a certain time frame and cut down on the number of boats vying for fish.
31 commercial fishermen died on average in Alaska between 1980 and 1988. That number has dropped to 13 per year between 2000 and 2009. Commercial fishing in Alaska consisted of a certain number of days that you could fish, but other than than, it was essentially a free-for-all. A fishing season that used to last up to several months was reduced to several 24 hour periods per year. These restrictions were put into place to protect fish populations. While these restrictions were effective, they had the unintended consequence of making fishing much more dangerous. These 24 hour periods in which you could fish were selected months in advance by government regulators. Some of these periods fell on days with severe weather and resulted in fishermen going out to sea under dangerous conditions. Of the 148 fatal vessel accidents that occurred in the United States from 2000 to 2009, 61 percent of the accidents involved severe weather.
In 1995, individual halibut quotas replaced the derby-style fishing in Alaska. Instead of a massive free-for-all during the 24 hour derby period, individual boat owners were given a quota of fish they could catch each season. This meant that fishermen could go out to fish anytime during the season, as long as they didn’t catch more fish then their quota allowed. No longer were fishing boats forced to venture out to sea in specific 24 hour periods to catch as much fish as they could. With the quota system, if the weather looked sketchy, fishermen could simply choose not to go out and wait until the weather clears up. Under the old system, those set 24 hour periods were the only time you could fish, so even if there was severe weather on the horizon, fishermen were forced to take their chances and go out to sea, which greatly contributed to the risk of commercial fishing in Alaska.
Another positive safety consequence that occurred due to the quota system is the decrease in the number of boats that went out to sea. Under the quota system, boat owners could lease out their fishing quotas to other fishermen who wanted to catch more fish then they were allowed. The remaining boats are believed to be crewed by the most experienced fishermen and the cutdown in the number of fishing vessels has contributed to the decrease in fishermen deaths. Also contributing to the better safety record is the change in attitude about safety. Fishermen are better prepared with first aid training and safety protocols. Higher usage of life jackets and the standard use of beacons on boats has helped decrease fatalities in vessel accidents, which is the leading cause of fishermen deaths.
Commercial fishing remains one of the dangerous occupations in the United States, but successful efforts have been made to increase safety. Most fishermen fatalities in commercial fishing involves a vessel accident and most of these accidents involve severe weather. By limiting the number of occasions that fishermen go out to sea in severe weather will automatically cutdown the risk of these accidents from occurring. Alaska saw a marked decrease in fishermen deaths when the derby-style fishing was replaced by the quota system, which allowed fishermen to be more selective about when they would go to sea.
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