Rising Alaska fishing deaths prompt focus on safety
An increase in Alaska fishing deaths this year is prompting action this week at a conference for industry members in Anchorage.
"So far there have been 10 deaths on Alaskan commercial fishing vessels," Jerry Dzugan, with the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, said Wednesday at the Alaska Young Fisherman Summit.
Although Alaska fishing deaths had been falling as recently as 2015, according to state statistics, 2017's death toll rose sharply with the February loss of the F/V Destination in the Bering Sea. The crabber's crew is missing and presumed dead.
"Six people died in that." Dzugan said, "Four more people died falling off boats after that, but no one since about July."
One factor, Dzugan said, is that "many deckhands don't wear a life jacket." He said a number of them think personal flotation devices, or PFDs, are too bulky, too hot, too uncomfortable and just get in the way.
"A lot of people out there don't know what's available," Dzugan said. "Once they do, then they start to buy them."
That's why a hands-on group demonstration of PFDs and survival suits was held Wednesday at the summit.
"We try to encourage to really think about the PFD that would really work best for them," said Julie Matweyou, a Kodiak-based Alaska Sea Grant marine advisor. "There are many different types of PFDs they can wear all the time on the boat."
Matweyou says many Alaska Sea Grant staff are teaching commercial fishermen about cold-water marine safety.
"The class is a 10 to 18-hour class we teach," Matweyou said. "One aspect is to focus on the care, use and stowage of the immersion suit or survival suit."
The suits, which can significantly extend life expectancy in Alaska's frigid waters, are donned during an imminent threat to life on a sinking vessel.
"We teach you, 'Do not exit your vessel until it is absolutely necessary,'" Matweyou said. "There are a lot of different scenarios, and they all play out a little differently."
Each vessel is required to have an immersion suit for each person on board. They can also be used in certain circumstances if someone falls overboard.
"How far away from the boat are they, how long have they been in," Matweyou said. "It's not ideal to use when someone goes overboard, but could be used."
Seven kinds of PFD were set to be demonstrated at the summit Thursday.
Richard Zacharof, a deckhand from St. Paul Island, said he always wears his PFD.
"Where I'm from, we have safety meetings every year," Zacharof said. "We register, we go through training and figure out how we can assist each other if there is ever a situation out on the water."
Zacharof is starting his sixth season as a deckhand, three of which were spent baiting.
"Fishing is more than just driving a boat around," Zacharof said. "You gotta stay on your toes and make sure everyone is comfortable and safe. You can hope you're going to catch a lot of fish, but you have to put in the work too."
Putting in the work means long shifts on short sleep. It's also wet and cold, with conditions in no way ideal.
"I've done overnight fishing: work 32 hours, sleep two hours, get up then start running gear again," Zacharof said. "Most I delivered in a night is 3,500 pounds."
Zacharof says he doesn't understand why anyone would not wear a PFD.
"It helps keep me warm, that's one of the main things," Zacharof said. "Sometimes my gear is soaking wet; if anything happens, I'm protected. There are different varieties I've seen. The ones that we have zip up and are like a shoulder vest -- I'd say they are comfortable."
The Alaska Young Fisherman Summit runs through Friday, at the Dena'ina Center in downtown Anchorage. This year's attendance is the largest it's seen to date, with just under 100 registered attendees.