Fishing boats line a dock at Kodiak's St. Paul Harbor on Oct. 3. Alaska accounted for a little over a third of the nation's commercial fishing deaths in the past decade. Fatality rates have declined in Alaska and in the nation. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Commercial fishing in Alaska, long notorious as a dangerous and potentially deadly occupation, is getting safer, according to data presented this week to federal regulators.
Alaska fishing-related fatalities declined at a rate of 57% from 2013 to 2022, according to the presentation made on Thursday to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is meeting in Anchorage.
Alaska, with 88 fishing fatalities from 2013 to 2022, accounted for slightly over a third of the nation’s fishing-related deaths during the period, according to the presentation, made by Samantha Case and Richie Evoy, epidemiologists with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The decline in Alaska fatalities mirrors a national trend, Evoy told the council. Although there are year-to-year fluctuations, nationally the rate of fishing fatalities has declined by about 42% since 2009, he said.
“Since 2009, you’ve seen a gradual decline in the rate of fatalities, which is pretty promising. But one thing to keep in mind is that commercial fishing continues to experience fatality rates at a much, much higher rate than a lot of other occupations in the U.S.,” Evoy said. “This essentially means that commercial fishing is still one of the most hazardous occupations in the country.”
Of the Alaska fishing fatalities recorded from 2013 to 2022, about a third resulted from vessel disasters, 28% from onboard accidents, 23% from falls overboard, 12% from onshore activity and 5% during dive fisheries, Evoy told the council. Nationally, there were 235 fishing fatalities during the period, Evoy told the council, and the breakdown was a bit different, with higher percentages attributed to vessel disasters and falls overboard.
Since vessel disasters are the leading cause of Alaska fishing fatalities, it is useful to consider risk factors associated with such disasters, Case said in the presentation.
She reviewed recent research that she led that investigated factors correlated with Alaska vessel accidents. The research, detailed in a study published in 2020 that examined Alaska fishing accidents and disasters from 2010 to 2015, found some risk patterns, she said.
Vessels that had a reported casualty in the prior 10 years were three times as likely to be involved in disasters, Case said. Vessels with expired safety decals were 2.4 times as likely to be involved in disasters, she said. The study also found that vessels with steel hulls were more than three times as likely to experience disaster, although that factor was likely less about the hull material than the types of fishing conducted, she said. Vessels with steel hulls tend to be bigger and operate farther offshore or in winter conditions, she said.
Case said her study did not find that ships’ age was a risk factor. The study found that vessels over 25 years old were not any more likely to be involved in accidents or disasters than newer ships, she said.
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