Study shows salmon fishing most dangerous in state, crabbing safest

Surprise! It turns out that salmon fishing is the most dangerous fishery in Alaska and crabbing in the Bering Sea is the safest.

That is just one of the findings of a new report by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which tracked U.S. fishing deaths from 2000 through 2009. The report is the first ever to explore how hazards and risk factors differ among fisheries and locations.

Some findings: from 2000 to 2009, some 504 commercial fishing deaths occurred in the United States. The Alaska region had the highest number of deaths at 133 (26 percent), followed by the Northeast at 124 (25 percent), the Gulf of Mexico at 116 (23 percent), West Coast at 83 (16 percent) and the Mid- and South Atlantic at 41 (8 percent). A total of 491 (97 percent) of those killed were male, with an average age of 41 years.

Of the total number of deaths, 261 (52 percent) occurred after a vessel disaster, 155 occurred when a person fell overboard (31 percent), and 51 (10 percent) resulted from an injury onboard. The remaining 37 deaths occurred while diving or on shore. Among the 155 fishermen who died from falling overboard, none wore a personal flotation device.

The 261 deaths that resulted from a vessel disaster occurred in 148 separate incidents. Of these, 37 (28 percent) were initiated by flooding, 24 (18 percent) by vessel instability, and 23 (18 percent) by being struck by a large wave. Severe weather conditions contributed to 61 percent of the 148 fatal vessel disasters.

The type of fishing was known in 478 fatalities, and shellfish ranked as the most dangerous with 226 deaths (47 percent), followed by groundfish with 144 (30 percent) and pelagic (mid-water) fishing with 97 deaths (20 percent).

The fisheries with the highest number of fatalities were Gulf of Mexico shrimp (55), Atlantic scallop (44) and Alaskan salmon (39).

That compares to a death toll of 12 Bering Sea crabbers during the same time. In fact, the Bering Sea crab fisheries can claim the lowest loss of life for all of the nation’s major fisheries.

The crabbers credit the slower-paced catch share program that was implemented in 2005 for making the Bering Sea fisheries safer. Since then, only one life has been lost in the Bering Sea; there have been no vessel sinkings.

Conversely, between 1991 and 2005, 26 vessels sank and 77 fatalities occurred in the Bering Sea crab fisheries.

Manufacturing means seafood

In Alaska, 49 percent of the state’s manufacturing employment is represented by seven seafood processing companies.

According to Economic Trends, published by the state Labor Department, Trident Seafoods is Alaska’s top seafood employer, ranking at No. 6 on the list of the top 100 employers. Also on the list: Icicle Seafoods at No. 28, Unisea at No. 30, Peter Pan at No. 39, Westward Seafoods at No. 41, Ocean Beauty Seafoods at No. 42 and North Pacific Seafoods No. 69. Trident provides between 2,250 and 2,499 jobs in Alaska and North Pacific Seafoods puts 250 to 499 people to work each year.

By area, Trident is the largest private sector employer in the Aleutians East Borough, the Bristol Bay Borough, the Kodiak Island Borough and the Lake and Peninsula Borough. Unisea is the largest employer in the Aleutians West area. Icicle Seafood ranks No. 1 in the Dillingham and Petersburg census areas; Ocean Beauty Seafoods is the largest employer in the Haines Borough; Kwik’Pak is the largest employer in the Wade Hampton census area; and Yakutat Seafoods is tops in Yakutat.

Trends reported employment in more than one-third of Alaska’s geographic areas is led by a seafood processing company. Most of the workers 74.4 percent are nonresidents who had average statewide total earnings in 2008 of $187 million.

A breakdown by region shows that 91.9 percent of processing workers in the Aleutians East Borough were nonresidents. Nonresident employees were 88.7 percent in the Bristol Bay Borough, 81.6 percent in the Ketchikan Borough, 70.3 percent in the Wrangell-Petersburg area, 68.2 percent in the Aleutians West Borough, 61.6 percent in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, 43.9 percent in the Kodiak Island Borough, 37.3 percent at Yakutat and 37.2 percent at the Prince of Wales-Outer Ketchikan region.

Dude fishing a dud

Bristol Bay’s so-called dude fishing program has been a dud so far. The state Board of Fisheries gave the OK in 2006 for visitors to spend a day aboard a salmon boat to experience what fishing is really like. But it’s attracted few takers, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Regional Manager Tim Sands of Dillingham, and "only a couple of folks" have participated since the dude fishing program began.

"One was my neighbor he wanted his kids to see what it was like so he took them out. It hasn’t really taken off or anything," Sands said.

Fishing dudes can get a seven-day crew license to fish aboard a permit holder’s boat. They are limited to 25 fathoms of gear and can only catch a certain number of fish. Dude fishing can occur in June or after the peak of the fishing frenzy in early July.

"We didn’t want it to interfere with the regular commercial fishing, and there was concern it was just a guise to harvest king salmon. So there are strict limits on the number of kings that can be harvested," Sands said.

Sands said he is not sure why the dude fishing program has been a dud.

"I don’t know how well it’s been marketed or how many people know the opportunity is even there," he said.

He thinks the chance to fish a day in the famous Bristol Bay is very worthwhile.

"Definitely," Sands said. "I think it would be fun. If I had family coming up, I’d probably get them out to do it."

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for more information.

08/05/2010 - 8:00pm