Commercial Fishing Safety: Vessel Disasters

Aerial photo of a partially submerged commercial vessel with oil containment booms surrounding the vessel and a larger vessel beginning salvage operations.

Vessel Disasters

Vessel disasters are the leading cause of fatalities among commercial fishermen accounting for 50% of deaths nationwide during 2000-2014. However, NIOSH has researched the prevention of vessel disasters through fisheries management policies and engineering interventions.

Surviving a Vessel Disaster

Increase your chances of surviving a vessel sinking.pdf icon[PDF - 436 KB]

NIOSH Surviving a vessel disaster infographic (PDF)

Most of the current U.S. Coast Guard safety regulations in the commercial fishing industry are focused on surviving a vessel disaster. The Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act (CFIVSA) of 1988, gave the Coast Guard authority to develop necessary lifesaving regulations for commercial fishing vessels, including requirements to carry emergency equipment such as life rafts and immersion suits.

NIOSH first evaluated the impact of CFIVSA on fatalities in Alaska in the 1990s. This evaluation found that the safety requirements contributed to 94% of the commercial fishermen surviving vessel disasters during 1997-1999, in comparison to a 77% survival rate in 1991-1993. For more details on these findings please refer to the published reports, “Preventing commercial fishing deaths in Alaska” and “Improving Safety in the Alaskan Commercial Fishing Industry.”

Recently, NIOSH conducted a quantitative assessment of the effectiveness of emergency equipment required by Coast Guard regulations. The results show that crewmembers involved in fishing vessel sinkings in Alaska were 17 times more likely to survive if they used a life raft after entering the water. For crewmembers who were in the water for over 30 minutes, chances of survival were 12 times greater if they boarded a life raft and six times greater if they wore an immersion suit. This studyexternal icon supports life rafts and immersion suits in saving lives and the need for training and enforcement of the use of this type of equipment.

NIOSH recommends fishermen take a marine safety training class at least once every five years. Safety training will provide you and your crew with the skills necessary to react to an emergency at sea and increase the likelihood of preventing or surviving a vessel disaster.

Preventing Vessel Disasters

Fisheries Management

Fishery management policies have been successfully implemented in Alaska as a way to improve the safety of commercial fishing vessels. NIOSH has evaluated the impact of the halibut/sablefish individual fishing quota program. Safety policies have also been developed by the U.S. Coast Guard for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Island (BSAI) crab fleet. Most recently, NIOSH conducted a review of the U.S. Coast Guard Alternative Compliance Safety Agreement program to verify that these new risk-based safety programs are effective in reducing injuries and fatalities among the targeted fisheries.

Engineering Solution

In addition to addressing vessel disasters through policy changes, NIOSH is also working to prevent the main initiating events of vessel disasters through the development of engineering controls. Current projects include studying vessel stability issues by developing hatch and door monitoring systems and multi-level flood sensors to prevent and monitor vessel flooding.

Page last reviewed: December 2, 2019