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Fatalities Associated with Harvesting of Sea Urchins -- Maine, 1993

During 1992-1993, six persons died while diving for sea urchins in Maine waters -- two during 1992 and four during August- November 1993. The four 1993 deaths were investigated by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Maine, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); each of the deaths was attributed to drowning. This report describes the results of the investigations of these cases.

Case 1. On August 19, an experienced 52-year-old diver was harvesting sea urchins from a vessel anchored in heavy fog. He exhausted his air supply after 1 hour and, while still in the water, requested another air tank from a support person (i.e., tender) in a small inflatable boat. The tender and another diver in a larger boat could not locate the diver in the reduced visibility. He was found submerged approximately 30 minutes later, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was unsuccessful.

Case 2. On August 31, an experienced 22-year-old diver was attempting on-board repairs to his urchin-harvesting vessel, which was moored in harbor during a rainstorm. During the repairs, his skiff broke loose from the harvesting vessel and began to drift in rough waters. He drowned while swimming to recover the skiff. His body was recovered 3 weeks later.

Case 3. On September 7, a 24-year-old college student, who had recently completed a basic scuba diving certification course, was attempting his first saltwater dive in fair sea and weather conditions. He was harvesting sea urchins in 30 feet of water when the tender lost sight of his bubbles within minutes of starting the dive. A diver onboard the boat and another diver in the water were not in visual contact with the distressed diver. He was found submerged approximately 20 minutes later, and CPR was unsuccessful. OSHA subsequently cited the boat owner for violations of commercial diving standards.

Case 4. On November 3, a 25-year-old man with less than 2 weeks of diving experience was harvesting sea urchins in open seas with powerful surf. The diver surfaced and was attempting to untangle his catch-bag recovery line when he became caught in breaking surf along a nearby rock formation. The person in the tending vessel was unable to assist him because the vessel was too large to maneuver in shallow waters. Another diver in the water was unaware of the situation. The man was found submerged approximately 20 minutes later, and CPR was not attempted. OSHA subsequently cited the boat owner for violations of commercial diving standards.

Reported by: SC Shannon, DO, Occupational Health Program, Div of Disease Control; KF Gensheimer, MD, State Epidemiologist, Div of Disease Control, Bur of Health, Maine Dept of Human Svcs; RH LeHay, Maine Dept of Marine Resources; J Ciampa, US Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, Portland. Alaska Activity, Div of Safety Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; Div of Field Epidemiology, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The commercial fishing industry has one of the highest occupational fatality rates in the United States (1). In Alaska, during 1991 and 1992, the average annual occupational fatality rate for the fishing industry was 200 per 100,000 workers, and the fatality rate for the shellfish fishery was 530 per 100,000 (1). In comparison, during 1993 in Maine, the fatality rate for the sea urchin-harvesting industry was 278 per 100,000 workers. During 1980-1989, the average annual rate of traumatic occupational fatalities in Maine was 7.6 per 100,000 (2). Although sea urchin-harvesting vessels constitute approximately 10% of commercial fishing vessels, they account for 25% of all commercial fishing vessels lost in northern New England (U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, Portland, Maine, unpublished data, 1994).

Commercial harvesting of sea urchins in Maine began in 1987, and the harvest doubled during 1992-1993, primarily because of increased demand for yellow roe. In 1993, 1439 divers were licensed to harvest sea urchins in Maine waters, and approximately 30-40 million pounds of roe were harvested.

In general, sea urchins are harvested by hand by divers using scuba equipment. The most marketable sea urchins are present in the subtidal zone along rock ledges in less than 30 feet of water. The highest quality roe is harvested during the winter. Shallow water over ledges and the often adverse Maine weather require divers and vessels to operate in waters with strong currents and powerful surf. These conditions pose substantial hazards for the sea urchin industry in Maine -- especially for inexperienced divers and persons unfamiliar with operating vessels in adverse sea and weather conditions (U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, Portland, Maine, unpublished data, 1994).

In addition to the four deaths reported in 1993, the U.S. Coast Guard reported an estimated five incidents in which deaths were averted only after extensive search-and-rescue efforts by state and federal agencies. For example, in one incident, aircraft were used to locate a sea urchin diver who became separated from the harvesting operation. Many divers work alone, and one harvest vessel may support several divers in multiple locations along a productive ledge. Thus, divers may be unable to summon assistance from the supporting vessel or from other divers.

Basic recreational scuba diving certification may not adequately train new divers for commercial activities such as sea urchin harvesting. Legislation has been introduced in Maine that would impose stricter training and certification requirements for sea urchin divers. The proposal would require persons to obtain a certificate of commercial diving competency before being issued a license to hand-harvest sea urchins. OSHA regulations require that each boat that tends sea urchin divers must have a diver stand by to provide assistance when another diver is in the water, and support personnel must be trained in CPR. In addition, each diver must be line-tended from the surface or in visual contact with another diver. Two of the cases described in this report (cases 3 and 4) prompted OSHA to apply work-safety standards for commercial diving to the sea urchin fishery for the first time by issuing citations to the owners of both boats.


  1. CDC. Commercial fishing fatalities -- Alaska, 1991-1992. MMWR 1993;42:350-1,357-9.

  2. NIOSH. Fatal injuries to workers in the United States, 1980-89: a decade of surveillance. Cincinnati: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Sevice, CDC, 1993.

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