By LAINE WELCH
January 19, 2010
Over the past year, more than 200 Alaska fishermen field-tested personal flotation devices (PFDs) as part of a life-saving project by federal safety specialists. Fatalities from falls overboard are the leading cause of fishing deaths. But fishermen resist wearing PFDs and a goal is to find out why.
"Since 1990 there have been 83 commercial fishermen who have died from falls overboard. None was wearing a PFD. Many were in minutes of being rescued when they lost strength and drowned. In those cases it very clearly could have been prevented with a PFD ," said Devin Lucas, project leader with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
The project targeted trawl, longline, crabbers and salmon fisheries, and randomly assigned six new styles of PFDs to fishermen in Dutch Harbor, King Salmon, Kodiak, Homer, Seward and Bristol Bay. Each wore the PFD while working for 30 days and then rated it on comfort, how hot or cumbersome they were, and any modifications they might suggest.
Jennifer Lincoln, head of the NIOSH Commercial Fishing Safety Research and Design program, said she was amazed at the response by fishermen.
"Eighty nine percent of the guys who tested the PFDs returned their forms that is almost unheard of. You'd expect 30-40% would be a respectable response rate. Fishermen really gave us the information we were asking," Lincoln said.
The PFD team also interviewed 400 other harvesters to get their attitudes, knowledge and beliefs about PFDs, and their perceived risk of falling overboard.
"It's so important to find something that the guys can work in because it's their uniform, it's their work gear," Lincoln said. "It's got to be comfortable and practical for the conditions. And what might be suitable for a salmon seiner in the summer might not be best for a Bering Sea crabber in the winter. So I can see how one PFD will not satisfy every person in every situation where they should be wearing one."
The favorite PFD selected by Alaska fishermen?
"The one that rated the highest was the Mustang inflatable PFD," said Lincoln. "The guys rated it to be very light weight, not too tight, not bulky, it was easy to put on, easy to clean, - it was rated quite high."
Only three of the 200 fishermen reported that any of the inflatable PFDs accidentally inflated, which also was a key part of the project.
The NIOSH team is compiling a full report on the PFD project and will provide all of the responses and data to gear manufacturers.
"It would seem that they would want to get as much information from the customer as possible. And the guys gave a lot of constructive criticism about how they would like a particular PFD modified to make it more comfortable," Lincoln said. "Whether it be it was slipping off their shoulders and they would like a strap in the middle, kind of like a back pack, or sometimes they wanted foam to be removable so that they didn't have to replace the whole thing. They were very innovative."
Along with a full report, the NIOSH team is compiling short PFD information guides for each of Alaska's fisheries.
A gear spokesman at Kodiak
Marine Supply said the most important consideration by customers
is that a PFD is big enough to fit comfortably. He said that
there is definitely more awareness among Alaska fishermen that
PFDs save lives.
Kodiak and Alaska Peninsula
crabbers dropped pots on January 15 at the start of the popular
bairdi Tanner crab fishery. Bairdi are the larger cousins of
opilio, or snow crab.
More than 50 boats have registered
for the Kodiak district, compared to 21 last season. For the
Peninsula fishery, 43 boats are on the water, compared to less
than a dozen.
"I think on the Peninsula there might be some concerns about the fishery going limited entry, so people want to show history in the fishery. That might be a large part of the interest," Sagalkin said.
Kodiak crabbers can haul in 700,000 pounds of Tanner crab this season; the Alaska Peninsula quota is a half million pounds, with the east section opening for the first time in a decade.
Recent surveys have shown a resurgence of Tanners in all of the fishing districts, crabs that are newly molting into the fishery. That means lots of new, clean shelled crabs that will be in demand by buyers.
Looking ahead, Sagalkin predicts
Tanners will continue to be a good fishery for the region.
Fishery scientists will soon test a new way of tracking fish and collecting marine data in waters around Juneau. In April a team from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center's Auke Bay Lab will launch a torpedo shaped autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that cruises silently underwater, and detects fish with acoustic tags that emit low frequency sounds. The AUV can cruise at varying depths along a pre-programmed path for over 12 hours.
Project leader John Eiler said the AUV should provide data on fish behavior than the current methods that use acoustic receivers attached to boats or buoys.
"The problem with those methods is fish have to travel and come into contact with the curtain of buoys. But oftentimes fish do things that we don't expect," he told KTOO in Juneau.
The AUV also will collect environmental
data such as water temperature, salinity, and oxygen concentrations,
while a side-scan sonar records images of the ocean floor.
"It is very important to get a sense of how fish are distributed and their movement patterns, the types of areas which they are using and which areas are important, not only within a season but between seasons," Eiler said. "And this is becoming increasingly important with changes in ocean conditions, to see how these changes may be affecting some of these patterns."
If the AUV produces the desired results, it could be used to determine the distribution, movements and habitats of important commercial and forage fish throughout Alaska waters.
The AUV project is a partnership with NOAA Fisheries, ADF&G, University of Alaska/Fairbanks and Rutgers University in New Jersey.