Commercial fishing is hands-down one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. The risk faced by commercial fishermen is hard to fathom. Over the last 20 years, the Centers for Disease Control have reported an average of 42 deaths annually. That’s staggeringly high. For comparison, the average was 117 deaths per 100,000 fishermen compared to 4 deaths per 100,000 workers among every other occupation combined. To further put things into perspective, one crab fisherman dies weekly during the highly profitable Alaskan king crab fishing season.
Almost half of fisherman fatalities resulted from a disaster aboard a fishing vessel (a.k.a. “fish boat”). Many fishing vessels are older, in poor condition, and sometimes made of wood. These boats can be pushed to their limits and kept in operation with razor-thin maintenance and repair efforts. Around 25% of fishing vessel disasters resulting in death occurred due to shipboard flooding. Another 20% were caused by vessel instability. It is all too common for fish boats to become overloaded. This happens slowly over time, as the owners add new equipment, bigger engines, more fish, and even structural components (like a top house).
Approximately 30% of commercial fishing fatalities result from mariners going overboard. Oftentimes, these incidents are not witnessed. And commercial fishermen are seldom wearing a lifejacket or a personal emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) when they go over the rail. These are preventable deaths.
While deaths are common on commercial fishing boats, injuries are even more common. In fact, under current injury-tracking mechanisms, it is difficult for government agencies to even estimate how common injuries are aboard fishing vessels. But common injuries include:
Slip, trip and falls
May of these injuries can be avoided with safety equipment, proper training, seaworthy equipment, good leadership, adequate rest, and a safe pace.
Commercial fishermen, also called “fishers”, work aboard commercial fishing vessels using equipment to catch marine life for human consumption. There are approximately 39,000 commercial fishermen employed in the United States. And those maritime workers harvest over 9.9 billion pounds of seafood in 2017. Among the most sought-after species for commercial fishers are salmon, crab, lobster, shrimp, and scallops.
Every position on a commercial fishing vessel may experience risk to health and safety. These positions include:
Commercial fishing has generated a vast array of vessels to serve the industry’s needs over the last several decades. These vessels are often extended well-beyond their working lives—sometimes for decades. Typical commercial fishing vessels are:
Trawlers — These vessels are usually larger and use trawler nets trailed behind the vessel in the water. The net is often suspended from poles above the water and connected to heavy chains down below.
Seiners — These are non-trawling boats that usually target pelagic species near the surface of the water using a surrounding net. As fish enter the net, the lower portion of the net (the “trapdoor”) closes and traps the fish. This operation is sometimes assisted by a smaller deployable boat called a tender.
Longliners — Longliner boats use long fishing lines covered in hundreds of baited hooks rather than using nets.
Tuna Clippers — As the name suggests, these vessels specialize in catching tuna using poles, lines, and live bait.
Gillnetters — These boats use a vertical net that looks like a fence standing along the sea floor. As fish swim to the net, they get their heads and gills stuck.
Crabbers (a.k.a. “fish trappers”) — These vessels range dramatically in size. They use hydraulics to lift and lower marked cages that trap target species using bait.
Factory Ships — Factory ships do it all. They catch the target species, gut it, process it, package it, freeze it, and store it for transport.
Commercial fish boats sometimes combine their functions to mix the above. They also trade out their deck equipment to fish during multiple seasons. These conversions can present further safety problems both during and as a result of the equipment changes.
Most coastal areas of the United States host a fishing industry of some kind. However, some states have more robust fishing industries than others. Among the most active fisheries in the country are:
Connecticut is also home to a few smaller, yet active, fishing towns.
An injured seaman in any of these states would be wise to contact a maritime attorney to discuss options after an on-the-job injury. Maritime law is largely uniform among U.S. jurisdictions, so don’t be afraid to interview more than just local attorneys.
If a commercial fisher is hurt in service of a vessel, he or she is likely entitled to maintenance and cure. These are ancient seafarer no-fault remedies that pre-date the existence of the United States. Simply stated, maintenance is a subsidy to assist with a mariner’s overhead expenses and cure is payment for the mariner’s medical expenses. Both of these benefits run from the time that the mariner is injured until he or she reaches maximum medical improvement (MMI) (a.k.a. “maximum medical cure). Any ambiguities in maintenance and cure should be resolved in favor of the injured mariner, also called the “Ward of the Admiralty Court”. In addition to maintenance and cure, an injured seaman may also be entitled to unearned wages—the wages he or she would have earned for the remainder of the contract period.
Additional fault-based remedies may be available to maritime workers injured as a result of negligence or unseaworthiness. The Jones Act was passed by Congress over 100 years ago. It gives seamen the right to a safe place to work. If a vessel owner or operator is negligent in its employment of a seaman, the seaman may be entitled to lost wages (past and future) as well as pain and suffering. The burden of causation under the Jones Act is said to be “featherweight”. The doctrine of unseaworthiness gives seamen a claim for unseaworthy conditions aboard a ship (including equipment and crewmembers).
Serving commercial fishermen in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Connecticut, and New York, Mariner Law, PLLC understands fishing safety. Because of the risk associated with fishing vessels, shipowners commonly use claims adjusters, lawyers, and insurance companies to protect their interests right after a crewmember is injured. Don’t face these challenges alone. Contact a seasoned maritime lawyer like Mariner Law, PLLC to make sure you get the compensation you’re owed under the law. The firm is familiar with mariners, their work, and their concerns after being hurt on the water. The initial consultation with a Jones Act lawyer is free and there is no commitment. Call now for help: (253) 600-2531. The firm proudly serves mariner clients in Washington, Oregon, New York, Connecticut, Alaska, and nationwide.