Nation’s most dangerous job could soon become more deadly
June 17, 2011
The president’s FY2012 budget eliminates funding for all agriculture, forestry and fishing research done by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), meaning fishing safety programs – budgeted at a mere $1.5 million -- will cease to exist.
No more E-Stops that prevent fishermen from being wrapped around deck winches. Finding the perfect PFD to prevent ‘man over boards’? A thing of the past. Safety monitors for hatches and doors to prevent vessel sinkings? Sayonara! Stability and flooding rate indicators? Out the door!
Those are just a few of the life saving innovations that NIOSH researchers have introduced to the fishing industry. NIOSH is not a regulatory agency, but a research organization established in 1970 to improve the safety and health of US workers. It is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
A 2006 NIOSH review by the National Academies review called the fishing program ‘exemplary’ and said “the NIOSH Alaska Field Station has executed its research according to how an ideal program would operate.”
A core group of six people work within the fishing industry research component, said Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an Injury Epidemiologist with the Commercial Fishing Research and Design Program based in Anchorage.
“We look at hazards in specific regions and fisheries, identify patterns and then work together with fishermen to come up with practical solutions that protect them and save lives,” Lincoln said. “No one has ever looked at the entire country to see what the specific problems are in various fisheries. That’s what NIOSH has brought to the table.”
Commander Chris Woodley, Chief of the US Coast Guard Prevention Department at Puget Sound said the long partnership with NIOSH has been very mutually beneficial.
“NIOSH has not only been able to help the Coast Guard on high risk fisheries but they are also very, very good at being an external auditor on how well we are doing with safety programs,” Woodley said. “They have been extremely effective in pointing us in the right direction, and then evaluating how well we are doing.”
Coast Guard programs are very much driven by NIOSH research, which can “really get much more into the weeds,” Woodley added, citing the study that included 200 fishermen field testing various PFDs on deck for a month and then rating them.
“The Coast Guard is more of a regulatory agency, and we couldn’t have done the same thing. They have a tremendous ability to be very creative,” Woodley said.
Edward Poulsen, director of the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, called the NIOSH budget gut “very disappointing.”
“Very rarely would you hear someone from industry speak in favor of a government agency that potentially could result in more regulations, but in this case the industry is extremely supportive of NIOSH based on the work they have done in improving fisheries,” Poulsen said.
The program’s loss is especially troubling as it comes at a time when new safety rules are on the books as part of the US Coast Guard Authorization Act that was retooled last year. One requirement is for the USCG to develop alternate compliance programs for those fishing fleets that can’t bring their vessels into class load line status.
“That whole concept of alternate compliance is very much predicated on the ability to determine what the safety hazards are with individual fleets and then come up with solutions to alleviate those hazards,” Commander Woodley said. “Without NIOSH, we are going to be hamstrung to a certain extent.”
“We are concerned that the new rules will be based on outdated information,” said Mark Vinsel, director of United Fishermen of Alaska.
NIOSH could possibly get thrown a life line from the Authorization bill which states “the Secretary shall establish a fishing vessel safety research grant program.” The funding is listed at $3 million.
“It’s unclear if that could support the work of NIOSH because the language is in the authorization bill for another federal agency,” said Jennifer Lincoln. My understanding is that the Coast Guard would have to ask for the appropriation and then decide what to do with that money. So the pathway is unclear to me.”
The federal budget bill will be marked up by July 1 and decided upon by the end of that month.
“It is the stakeholders who have the loudest voice at the moment,” Lincoln added.
If the stakeholders don’t speak up, the nation’s most dangerous job will soon become more deadly.
With salmon season in full swing, it is appropriate to acknowledge the patron saint of salmon - Saint Kentigern of Scotland. Born in 518, Kentigern was the illegitimate son of a king’s daughter. He trained as a priest at a monastery, where his saint-hood evolved around a dangerous love-triangle.
Legend has it that the king suspected his wife of having an affair, because she had given one of her favorite rings to a court favorite. The king took the ring when the man was sleeping and threw it far out into the River Clyde. When he returned home, the king angrily demanded that his wife show him the missing ring and threatened her with death if she could not produce it. In her misery, the queen beseeched the priest Kentigern to help her.
Kentigern took a fishing rod to the spot where the ring had been flung into the river. He quickly caught a salmon and cut it open. Amazingly, the ring was found in the salmon’s belly. The queen was able to deliver the ring to her doubting husband and peace was restored.
From the time of his death in 603, Kentigern was regarded as Scotland’s patron saint and the cathedral at Glasgow was built in his honor. To this day Kentigern’s figure and symbols, including a salmon, make up that city’s coat of arms. So who knows, perhaps a quick prayer to the patron saint of salmon will lead more fish to your nets!
On the Web
Check out BristolBaySockeye.org, a new website that connects consumers with the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. It tells the history of the fishery, and emphasizes the “Faces of the Fleet,” through beautiful photography, a series of fisherman profiles, and a video of the 2010 season shot by Bristol Bay commercial fishermen.
This year marks the 21st year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off – Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. My goal is to make all people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world.