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Commercial Fishing Fatalities -- Alaska, 1991-1992

Based on data from the National Traumatic Occupational Fatality surveillance system, Alaska had the highest state-specific work-related fatality rate during 1980-1989. During this period, the annual average private industry fatality rate in Alaska was 34.8 per 100,000 workers, nearly five times the annual average for the United States (7.0 per 100,000) (1). Fatalities in the commercial fishing industry -- which accounts for the second largest percentage of revenue and number of jobs in the state -- are among the highest industry-specific rates in the United States (1). Because of the high occupational fatality rates for Alaska, in 1991, CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) initiated efforts in Alaska to improve surveillance and describe risk factors for serious occupational injuries associated with the fishing, logging, and air transport industries. This report uses data obtained and analyzed by NIOSH to characterize fishing industry deaths in Alaska for 1991 and 1992.

Surveillance data from fatality investigations by NIOSH's Alaska Activity, Division of Safety Research, were used to obtain information on fishing-related fatalities, including the cause of death, the circumstances of the incident, and the location of the vessel's operation. The data included interviews of survivors; review of death certificates; and analysis of data received from the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the Alaska State Troopers (AST), and local news media reports. Fatality rates were calculated for each type of fishery by estimating worker population of the fishery within which the vessel was operating at the time of the fatal event (Table 1). These estimates were based on methodology developed by the Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska (2), and revised by the Alaska Department of Labor and the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission (3): the number of workers at risk was estimated by multiplying the number of vessels making landings each month by the appropriate crew size associated with the respective fishery. Data on use of wearable personal flotation devices (PFDs) (i.e., survival suits, life jackets, and float coats) were obtained either from the USCG or AST reports.

During 1991-1992 in Alaska, there were 116 fatal occupational incidents resulting in 166 work-related deaths; 43 (37%) incidents occurred in the commercial fishing industry, resulting in 70 fatalities (35 each in 1991 and 1992). Of these 70 workers, 69 (98.6%) were male; mean age at death was 32.7 years. The occupational fatality rate for the Alaska commercial fishing industry for 1991 and 1992 was 200 per 100,000 workers per year -- 6.7 times the mean fatality rate for all private sector Alaskan industry for 1991 and 1992 (30.0 per 100,000 per year) * (CDC, unpublished data, 1993).

The cause of death for 66 (94.3%) workers was drowning, presumed drowning, or drowning due to hypothermia (International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, external cause-of-death codes 830, 831, 832, 834, 836, 838, and 910). Three workers were crushed to death during crabbing operations, and one committed suicide aboard a working vessel (Figure 1, page 357). Of the 66 drownings, 51 (77.3%) were attributed to capsized, sunk, or missing (presumed lost) vessels; the remaining 15 (22.7%) (all single-fatality events) resulted from a person-overboard drowning. Twenty-one (31.8%) were confirmed drownings (body recovered), and 45 (68.2%), presumed (no body found). Of the 43 fatal incidents, 27 (62.8%) were single-fatality events; the remaining 16 (37.2%) were multiple-fatality events, including the loss of two vessels with six persons aboard each.

Of the 70 fatalities recorded, 63 were identified as participating in one of the five major Alaska fisheries (groundfish, halibut, herring, salmon, or shellfish); two died while harvesting sea cucumbers; and information on type of fishery was not available for five fatalities. Both the number of fatalities (32) and the average annual fatality rate (530 per 100,000) were highest for the shellfish fishery. Half (16) of these fatalities resulted from the disappearance and presumed sinking of three vessels in the Bering Sea in three separate incidents; all three vessels were fishing for king crab in the vicinity of the Pribilof Islands during winter months (February 1991, November 1991, and January 1992).

Persons who drowned or are presumed to have drowned were compared with persons who survived incidents in which at least one life was lost. Of those persons reportedly wearing a PFD, seven (58%) of 12 survived and thus were more likely to have survived (odds ratio=8.9; 95% confidence interval=1.7-49.0) than those who reportedly were not wearing a PFD, of whom six (14%) of 44 survived.

Seven (10%) of the 70 workers died while working aboard catcher-processor ("factory trawler") vessels. These vessels combine the activities and risks of fish harvesting with those of large commercial canning and food-processing machinery.

Nine workers died during "derbys" (i.e., abbreviated fishing seasons during which catch quantities are unlimited), which are scheduled in advance and held regardless of weather or sea conditions. The USCG cited foul weather and/or vessel overloading as a factor in five of these fatalities.

Reported by: Alaska Activity, Div of Safety Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The findings in this report are consistent with previous reports of surveillance data, incident investigations, and survey information collected during 1980-1992 by NIOSH (4; CDC, unpublished data), the USCG (5), the National Research Council (6), and the University of Alaska (7). These findings indicate that workers at greatest risk for fishing-related fatal injuries are those who operate aboard unstable (i.e., easily capsized) vessels and those who have insufficient training in shipboard safety, especially regarding cold-water survival techniques and the use of lifesaving equipment such as PFDs.

In this report, fatality rates were greatest for shellfishing and varied substantially by fishery, which differ in geographic location of fishing grounds, type of harvesting equipment and techniques, and time of year and duration of respective fishing seasons. Alaska shellfishing, which is predominantly for crab, may be particularly hazardous because crab harvesting generally takes place during the winter months, often in conditions of cold, high winds, short daylight hours, and high seas. In addition, the basic equipment used in crabbing is large steel cages ("pots") that weigh up to 800 pounds (empty) each and require physical strength and use of winches and other equipment for placement, retrieval, and stowage. Stacking these pots on deck can also severely compromise vessel stability, especially if accompanied by icing of the vessel structure.

Adverse weather and other environmental conditions contribute to the increased risk for injury for all commercial fishing workers in Alaska. Resource management needs have led to a substantial reduction in the number of permitted fishing days for some species (8); for example, in 1992 the Alaskan halibut fishing season consisted of two or three 24-hour derbys, compared with a 2-week season in 1980. Many workers labor continuously -- without sleep and in foul weather -- through a derby and return to port in overladen, unstable vessels. If more flexible fishing seasons were established, fishing could be done during fair weather instead of during a mandated short season regardless of weather conditions.

Environmental conditions may also contribute to the severity of work-related incidents. The USCG has classified all waters in Alaska (including bays, inlets, harbors, and rivers) as "cold" waters (less than 60 F {less than 15.6 C}); in these waters, hypothermia can lead to death by drowning within minutes of immersion. Because immersion suits provide thermal protection from cold water temperatures and are critical for survival during immersions in cold waters, the USCG has recommended their routine use in these environments (9).

The findings in this report also indicate that once a person falls overboard, protection from drowning is frequently inadequate. Although the USCG does not require PFDs to be worn during all activities, USCG regulations (46 CFR Part 28) do require that each commercial fishing vessel carry at least one USCG-approved PFD of the proper size for each person on board, and that each PFD be readily accessible from both the worker's usual work station and berthing area (9). The use of some PFDs while performing tasks on commercial fishing vessels may actually increase worker risk because the PFDs may become snagged by nets or hooks or caught in large winches and pulleys (9).

Since 1987, the number of factory seafood-processor vessels has increased rapidly in the Alaska seafood industry. The risks for workers aboard processor vessels are similar to those on commercial fishing vessels (e.g., prolonged and extended work hours, exposure to hazardous equipment, and danger of falling overboard or the vessel sinking). College newspapers recently have advertised opportunities for seasonal employment aboard factory processors operating in Alaskan waters. Accordingly, students and other persons considering seasonal employment in the Alaskan seafood industry should be aware of the hazards associated with this type of work and the need to familiarize themselves with available safety equipment (including PFDs) and procedures. In addition, employers should provide such training to workers on their arrival.

Prevention-oriented research activities aimed at reducing the risk for occupational injuries in the Alaska commercial fishing industry include the recently established NIOSH surveillance and investigative activities to identify potential risk factors. Other activities include developing, testing, and increasing acceptance of PFDs that incorporate heat-conserving properties and can be comfortably and safely worn by all fisherpersons while working on deck. Ongoing activities include data collection by the Alaska Occupational Injury Prevention Program and the USCG and safety education programs through the USCG and nonprofit organizations (e.g., Alaska Marine Safety and Education Association, Alaska Vocational Technical Center, and the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners Association).


  1. NIOSH. National Traumatic Occupational Fatality database {Machine-readable datatape}, 1980-1989. Morgantown, West Virginia: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1992.

  2. Rodgers GW, Listowski RF, Mayer D. Measuring the socioeconomic impacts of Alaska's fisheries. Anchorage, Alaska: University of Alaska, Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1980.

  3. Focht R. Employment and gross earnings in Alaska's commercial fisheries: estimates for all participants and residents of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California, 1983-84. Juneau, Alaska: Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, 1986; report no. 86-8.

  4. Schnitzer PG, Landen D, Russell J. Estimating deaths from work-related injuries in Alaska's fishing industry, 1980-1988 {Abstract}. In: Program and abstracts of the Epidemic Intelligence Service 40th annual conference. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1991:28-9.

  5. Coast Guard. United States Coast Guard Main Casualty (CASMAIN) database, 1982-89. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, Coast Guard, Marine Investigations Division, 1992.

  6. National Research Council. The commercial fishing safety record. In: Fishing vessel safety: blueprint for a national program. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1991:62-5.

  7. Knapp G, Ronan N. Fatality rates in the Alaska commercial fishing industry. Anchorage, Alaska: University of Alaska, Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1991; Alaska sea grant college program publication no. AK-SG-90-03.

  8. International Pacific Halibut Commission. Annual report, 1991. Seattle: Winterholm Press, 1992.

  9. Coast Guard, US Department of Transportation. Commercial fishing industry vessel regulations: final rule. Federal Register 1991;56:40367-8.

    • Denominators are from employment estimates supplied by the Research and Analysis Section, Alaska Department of Labor.

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