Commercial Fishing: The Deadliest Industry

Commercial fishing is the deadliest industry in the United States. It has held this distinction as far back as 1992, and it was officially recognized as such by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) from 2007 to 2011. Safety advocates have been pushing the government for increased regulation of the industry for over a decade, but a new bill has yet to make it out of Congress. Commercial fishermen now rely on themselves, their coworkers and a few piecemeal laws to avoid untimely death at sea tragedies. Commercial Fishing Safety Statistics Several studies published by various government agencies and advocacy groups show that commercial fishing is, by far, the deadliest job in America. For the first decade of the millennium, the industry suffered from a rate of death that was 31 times higher than the national average. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported the following statistics concerning fishing industry deaths for the period of 2000 through 2009: • 165 deaths off the East Coast • 133 deaths off the coast of Alaska • 116 deaths in the Gulf of Mexico • 83 deaths off the West Coast According to the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2011, published by the BLS, a total of 4,609 fatal injuries occurred in the workplace that year, and 40 of those were in the fishing industry. Taking into consideration the total number of workers in the industry, the death rate is 121.2 deaths per 100,000 workers. An Insider’s Perspective Fred Matera, a longtime fisherman in Rhode Island, conducts safety training for new recruits and offers a firsthand perspective on the dangers of the industry. He says that everyone who lives in the area around Point Judith Harbor knows someone who has died at sea, but it is silently accepted as an unpleasant fact. Ten years ago, Mattera was involved in a rescue attempt when a young man, who was the son of a friend, was trapped in a fish hold 125 miles from the shore. He had passed out after toxic gases had unknowingly built up in the hold. The young man died before Mattera arrived, and he admits that the incident has haunted him ever since. Although the man’s family thought him a hero, Mattera could only think of himself as a failure. After the accident, Mattera became more vocal about the dangers of commercial fishing, and he vowed to the mourning family that he would do everything in his power to bring change to the industry. Government Regulation of the Fishing Industry The first law passed by the U.S. concerning death at sea was the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act. According to Jones Act Maritime Law, any seaman suffering from an accident at sea, including a Gulf of Mexico injury at sea, is entitled to compensation for damages from their employer. However, it can be a difficult process to recover this money without the help of maritime law firms. An experienced Jones Act maritime attorney or oil rig accident attorney can ensure that all laws are being followed. Further legislation regarding the industry was not enacted until 1988 when the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act was passed. This law requires fishing vessels to carry lifeboats, personal flotation devices and other safety equipment. In 2007, hearings began in the House of Representatives citing several recent tragedies in the industry. Safety advocates argued that the 1988 law is not proactive because it does not prevent accidents but simply outlines how to deal with them after they occur. The only result of the hearings was the establishment of a voluntary program for employers, but very few of them have ever taken advantage of it.