Alaska’s 2nd fatality-free year of commercial fishing could be part of a trend

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Fishing boats at Ketchikan’s Thomas Basin harbor in October. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

There were no fatalities within Alaska’s commercial fishing fleets this year, for only the second time on record. The U.S. Coast Guard says the credit belongs to the fishermen themselves.

It’s the first time since 2015 that Alaska has gone a year without a commercial fishing death. The Coast Guard said that in the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, no one died from falling overboard, in an on-deck accident or on a sinking ship.

Scott Wilwert is the Coast Guard’s commercial fishing vessel safety coordinator. He said fatalities have been cut almost in half over the last decade.

“From 1990 to 1999, we had 210, what we would classify as operational, commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska,” Wilwert explained. “And in the 10-year period from 2000 to 2009, that dropped from 210 to 107. And then from 2010 to 2019, down to 62.”

Wilwert said there have been just 10 commercial fishing deaths in Alaska since 2020.

“So yeah, we definitely are seeing a downward, decreasing trend in the number of commercial operational fatalities in the industry,” he said.

But, what exactly is causing that downward shift?

Wilwert said it’s a combination of changing fishery regulations and an industry culture focused on preventing accidents.

“I believe that, you know, the fishermen that I come in contact with, and all our (dockside) examiners come in contact with are much more safety conscious, they understand the risks, they take the preparations, you know, and that’s a big piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Wilwert said that’s a sharp contrast to the ‘70s and ‘80s, when short openings encouraged captains to fish in an all-out sprint — sometimes sacrificing safety.

“The way that fishermen now, in certain sectors, are able to, to some extent, choose when they want to go out, maybe skip a weather window, or look for a better weather window, as opposed to the old derby days when, you know, back in the 70s and 80s, overloading or deck loading with fish or overflowing with gear, because you only had for six or eight days to catch all the crab or the halibut or whatever,” he said.

Wilwert emphasized how important it is for mariners to stay up to date on safety recommendations and equipment, and to take part in the dockside exams offered by the Coast Guard — before it’s too late.

“The time to learn how to use any of that stuff is not at the moment of truth,” he said.

Tracy Welch is the executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska.

We’re a big industry, but in a way, we’re (a) really small industry,” she said. “Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody, right? And so those deaths are tragic.”

Welch said she also thinks that things have changed over the last few decades when it comes to education.

“I think with the younger generation of fishermen coming in and moving towards more rationalized fisheries, as opposed to the derby style fisheries, it’s given people a chance to focus on safety and making sure that people make it home at the end of the day,” she said.

Welch said she hopes the trend continues.

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