While the 2007 Alaskan commercial fishing fatality rate may sound incredibly high, it actually represents a 51 percent drop since 1990 [source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health], thanks in part to heightened safety measures. In light of a climbing commercial fishing fatality rate, the U.S. Congress passed the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act in 1988. The bill requires commercial fishing boats to carry survival equipment on board, putting the power of enforcement into the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Common causes of fishermen deaths include drowning, hypothermia, capsizing and falling overboard. Falling overboard immediately puts someone at risk of death, especially in the cold Alaskan waters. Over a 10 year period, the occurrence of this type of accident remained consistent because of the factors associated with it -- inclement weather, slippery decks and becoming entangled in fishing equipment.
For that reason, flotation devices and other safety equipment can make a positive impact in decreasing the death rate. One study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that among 71 fishermen who fell overboard, only 17 were wearing personal flotation devices, even though the devices make them more than eight times as likely to survive [source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health]. Thanks to required onboard safety equipment, the survival rate of crew members on sinking ships increased from 73 percent to 96 percent from 1996 to 2004 [source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health].
The Coast Guard also stresses the importance of preventative measures for ship safety. In the 2004 sinking of the crab fishing boat Big Valley, for instance, investigators found that the boat had been overloaded with supplies, making it unsafe to sail. Likewise, between 20 and 40 Alaskan fishing boats capsize each year, which is what happened to the Arctic Rose in 2001 when it took 15 men to their deaths in the Alaskan waters. However, no mandatory safety review exists for commercial fishing boats. Of the 20,000 boats in the United States that the Coast Guard oversees, only about 6 percent undergo voluntary inspections [source: Markels]. Additional prevention measures, like inspections, have not been widely embraced in the private sector fishing industry.
For all of the hazards that fishermen endure in their aquatic quests, the safety issues bring a new appreciation to the smoked salmon, crab legs and other seafood delectables the rest of us enjoy after a long day at the office. If anything, you can be grateful that you didn't have to catch it yourself.
For more information on fishing and the ocean, read the links on the next page.