Most people's brief list of occupational hazards climaxes at Blackberry thumb. A world away from corporate cubicles, Alaskan fisherman literally risk life and limb to haul in the millions of tons of seafood that ends up on dinner plates.
In general, the commercial fishing industry is not for the weak at heart. Each year, it places thousands of workers on the world's shorelines at the mercy of the ocean, and job lists consistently rank commercial fishing among the dirtiest and deadliest. In Alaska, the stakes are higher since the getting is so good -- almost 95 percent of the U.S. salmon supply comes from the state's fisheries [source: Alaska Department of Fish & Game]. The fishing industry pulls a big load in the Alaskan economy, comprising close to half of the state's private sector employment [source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game].
But the weather and waters sometimes clash with the fury of an angry Poseidon. Hauling up nets or cages weighing several hundreds of pounds is hard work. Add pelting rain, rogue waves and icy decks, and that work becomes lethal. Because of the state's geographical location, the waters are often colder and more unforgiving than other fishing environments.
These conditions add up to the deadliest occupation in the United States -- 128 per 100,000 Alaskan fishermen perished on the job in 2007, 26 times the national average [source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health]. Fishing deaths also make up about a third of all occupational fatalities in Alaska each year.
But within the Alaskan fishing industry, one subset takes the title of most unsafe -- crab fishing. The focus of the Discovery Channel show "Deadliest Catch," crab fishermen work one of the most dangerous jobs in the world in hopes of reaping the riches that come with a boatload of crab.
Why can crab fishing turn into a Russian roulette game with the sea? And what's being done to help tame these dangers? On the next page, we'll crack open the crab fishing industry to learn why fishermen gamble with their lives on the boats.
Kingsized danger -- Alaskan crab fishing
The brief Alaskan crab season lasts as little as a few days or weeks during the fall and winter. Crab fishing takes place in remote areas of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, sandwiched between Alaska and Russia. Docked in Dutch Harbor, the largest fishing port in the United States, around 200 crab fishing boats set out, as eager as racehorses bursting out of the gates.
Crab fishing involves dropping 800-pound steel cages, called crab pots, into select areas of the Bering Sea where specific crab species, such as king crab, live. Fishermen cover the traps with herring meat as bait, and the crabs climb up a ramp to get the food, then fall into the bottom of the pot where they can't escape. Fishermen leave these pots in the water for a day or two to allow them to fill up, then haul in their load.
Crab pots and crab pot launchers are common sources of injuries. Fishermen get caught up in the coil lines. Working at the edge of the boat also puts them at risk of being swept off the deck and falling overboard.
A wintertime Bering Sea injects a heavy dose of danger into the job. While salmon fishing season, for example, falls between June and September, crab fishing takes place in spurts between October and January. The icy waters threaten hypothermia and storms grow more frequent during that time of year. The brief season zips by so quickly, the haste of the catch can also contribute to a high fatality rate. And if you get hurt on the boat, no one can drive you to a hospital. To add to the mental strain of an 18- to 20-hour shift, Alaskan winter days may be dark except for a few hours.
With the environmental odds stacked against them, what keeps people coming back to crab fishing, season after season? Many sail the blue waters in search of the green. Business Week magazine named crab fishing the "Worst Job with the Best Pay," with fishermen cashing out as much as $50,000 for a few days work catching king crab and even more for snow crab [source: Miller].
True, when the tide rolls in your favor, crab fishing pays well in return for a hellish week or so, but Alaska officials warn about the unpredictability of crab fishing since it all depends on the size of the harvest. Generally, crew members make 1.5 to 10 percent of the ship's profit. In 2006, 505 commercial Alaskan fishermen pulled in more than $127 million gross worth of crab [source: Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission]. That averages out to more than $250,000 per person, but keep in mind that the payout isn't evenly distributed to all fishermen, since boat owners and captains often claim up to half of a ship's earnings.
While many crab fishermen make a huge chunk of change, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median income for commercial fishermen of only $27,250 per year. Evidently, the pay-off of such risky work may be low for some of the industry's estimated 36,000 employees. What changes have been made to improve the working conditions? Is commercial fishing safer today than it used to be? We'll explore that topic on the next page.
Commercial Fishing Safety Measures
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.
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More Great Links
- Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. "Permit & Fishing Activity by Year, State, Census Area, or City." March 26, 2008. (April 11, 2008)http://www.cfec.state.ak.us/gpbycen/2006/00_AK.htm
- Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "Alaska's Commercial Salmon Fishery." (April 11, 2008)http://www.adfg.state.ak.us/special/salmonfishery.pdf
- Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "Commercial Fishing Seasons in Alaska." April 2007. (April 15, 2008) http://www.cf.adfg.state.ak.us/geninfo/pubs/seasons/season_1.pdf
- Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. "Seafood and Fishing Jobs in Alaska. Oct. 5, 2007. (April 11, 2008)http://www.labor.state.ak.us/esd_alaska_jobs/seafood.htm
- Blau, S.Forest. "Alaska King Crabs." Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Nov. 1997. (April 11, 2008)http://www.adfg.state.ak.us/pubs/notebook/shellfsh/kingcrab.php
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Fatal Occupational injuries, employment, and rates of fatal occupational injuries by selected worker characteristics, occupations, and industries, 2006." U.S. Department of Labor. 2007. (April 11, 2008)http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/CFOI_Rates_2006.pdf
- Markels, Alex. "Dangers of the Deep." U.S. News & World Report. May 23, 2005. (April 11, 2008)
- Miller, Kerry. "Worst Jobs with the Best Pay." Business Week. Sept. 14, 2006. (April 11, 2008)http://www.businessweek.com/careers/content/sep2006/ca20060914_736742.htm?chan=search
- Murphy, Kim. "Fishing Where Few Even Dare." Los Angeles Times. April 10, 2001. (April 11, 2008)
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "Commercial Fishing." 2002. (April 11, 2008)http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2002-115/pdfs/2002115f.pdf
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "Commercial Fishing in Alaska." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 16, 2007. (April 11, 2008)http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fishing/
- Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Fishers and Fishing Vessel Operators." Bureau of Labor Statistics. (April 11, 2008)http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos177.htm