Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous industries in the world. According to U. S. Bureau of Labor statistics, in 2014, commercial fishing was the second most dangerous occupation in the country with over 80 fatalities per 100,000 workers.* Crab fishing is without-a-doubt the most dangerous sub-category of the commercial fishing industry, and the 2016 California Dungeness crab season could be one of the most dangerous yet. Every year, crab fishermen all along the West Coast are seriously injured or worse, die trying to bring these delicious creatures affectionately known as “Dungies” to our dinner table. The good news is that injuries and deaths are largely avoidable if fishermen fully understand the dangers of overloading their vessels with traps and catch.
Nearly every commercial crab fishing accident involves an overloading or vessel stability causal factor. It usually goes something like this: The boat leaves the harbor with too many crab traps on deck so that the sheer weight of the traps causes the boat to ride dangerously low in the water. This leads to vessel instability, meaning that it is very susceptible to flooding and tipping over or capsizing. The problem is exacerbated when the boat is in rough seas and/or strong winds. When the crew is on the fishing grounds and putting traps in the water, or when they are being retrieved, the vessel leans to the point of no return and flips over. The fishermen are thrown into the frigid water with little or no warning. Some of them immediately slip beneath the surface as they succumb to a physiological response known as Cold Water Shock Syndrome. Others struggle to stay afloat as they fight against the effects of hypothermia. No one had time to put on a lifejacket or an immersion suit and no one could get to the radio to call for help. They can only hope that another boat is nearby and saw what happened or that their Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) will automatically alert the Coast Guard that they are in distress.
This “hypothetical” scenario plays out a few times each year along the West Coast. It actually occurred last February about six miles off the coast of San Francisco, except that the crew was able to radio for help just prior to going into the water, and no one was injured or died.
The crew was exceptionally lucky that they survived to fish another day.
The 2016 California Dungeness crab fishing season could potentially be more dangerous than previous seasons due to a couple of unique factors. The first factor is that the season has been delayed due to high levels of domoic acid found within the crabs. Once fisheries management authorities determine that the crab are safe to catch, crab fishermen will be anxious to get out there, "soak some traps", and make some money. These fishermen will be trying to put as many traps in the water as they can as quickly as possible. That means they will be stacking as many traps on the boat as possible, per trip, which creates unstable vessels.
The second factor is the a-typical weather and sea conditions brought about by El Nino. The off- shore sea conditions have been unusually rough this winter and may remain that way throughout the crab season. There are a lot of fishermen that have not fished in conditions this rough before and may, through lack of experience, choose to go out in conditions that exceed their or their boat's capabilities. This combination of a "sense of urgency", a desire to maximize efficiency by carrying a maximum load of traps, and potential rough sea conditions, are the perfect ingredients for a loss of stability-type accident.
If you are a commercial crab fisherman, please take the time to thoroughly understand your vessel’s stability limitations, and to not exceed those limits. It’s important to remember that losing your boat and crew is not worth a few extra crab pots. If you are unsure about the ins-and-outs of vessel stability, contact your local Coast Guard Commercial Fishing Vessel Examiner for help - it's a free service! Our Examiners have a lot of experience and have outstanding, free educational materials that might just save your life and the life of your crew.
Article by Lieutenant Commander Jon Lane, U. S. Coast Guard
*U. S. Bureau of Labor 2014 Census of Occupational Injuries: http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cfoi_rates_2014hb.pdf. The national occupational fatality rate is 3.3 deaths per 100,000 workers; logging is the most dangerous occupation with 110 deaths per 100,000 workers.
About the Author: Lieutenant Commander Jon Lane is the Chief of the Marine Casualty Investigations Division at Coast Guard Sector San Francisco. He was a helicopter rescue swimmer for 15 years and rescued numerous commercial fishermen before becoming an investigator. Since then he has investigated commercial fishing vessel accidents in Alaska, Washington, and Northern California for the last 10 years.