Story last updated at 4/15/2009 - 11:03 am
Falling overboard is a leading cause of death in the most dangerous occupation - commercial fishing.
"It doesn't make the big headlines, like when a boat goes down with all hands lost. But these 'one boys' really add up," said Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.
Simply wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) could save countless lives, but sadly, fishermen resist using them. Safety advocates are trying to change that by having the fishermen field test new models.
"Since 1990 there have been 83 commercial fishermen in Alaska who have died from falls overboard," said Devon Lucas an epidemiologist for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Anchorage. "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," Lucas is leading a study to find out why fishermen forego PFDs and how to improve the life saving devices.
"A lot of fishermen tell us that they are bulky, hot, heavy and too uncomfortable to work in," Lucas said. "We started wondering if the newer models, that are inflatable or integrated into rain gear, would face the same kinds of problems that the older, bulkier foam PFDs did."
The study aims to get feedback on six new PFDs by having fishermen wear them for a month while they fish on various vessels.
"We know that the different seasons and weather conditions and the type of gear they are operating will probably make fishermen have different preferences," Lucas said. "Afterwards they will rate the PFDs on how bulky they are, (if they're) too tight, if they constrict motion, get snagged in gear, how easy to put on, keep clean, those kinds of things."
Bering Sea crabbers and trawlers have so far participated in the PFD study, and the NIOSH team will be walking the Kodiak docks this week looking for volunteer longliners. In June they will target the Bristol Bay gillnet fleet, Lucas said.
He added that the response by fishermen has been very welcoming.
"This is an issue that fishermen are concerned about and they are ready and willing to look at new ways to solve the problem," he said. "They especially like the fact that we are asking them to provide their input rather than just assuming what they might like, and testing PFDs with some other groups who aren't dealing with the same conditions."
PFD questions? Contact Devin Lucas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 441-8914.
Aquatic farming could give a boost to Western Alaska economies, but no one has ever applied. Every two years the state accepts applications for aquatic farm sites from January through April. Currently 66 farms have permits (not all are active), dotting Southeast and South central waters. Oysters are the main crop, valued at about a half million dollars each year.
"Alaska doesn't come close to meeting the demand for oysters, both in-state and Outside," said Cynthia Pring-Ham, mariculture coordinator for ADF&G.
The economic downturn has increased interest in mariculture and several training programs are helping people get started. The state offers more than 20 pre-approved sites for farmers, or they can opt for their own underwater acreage.
Alaska has been very supportive of the fledgling mariculture industry. There are now shellfish hatcheries at Seward and Prince of Wales Island, the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative in Homer has a big new facility, and the Oceans Alaska center in Ketchikan aims to be a global leader in aquatic farming. Project director John Sund says it's all about jobs.
"Economic development is the primary thing," Sund said. "If we look at what the opportunities are for year round, sustainable jobs in remote coastal communities, the shellfish industry is one of the best options we have."
Economists have estimated that farming geoduck clams, sea cucumber, scallops and seaweeds could return up to $100 million to Southeast Alaska, compared to $7 million today.
Pring-Ham said she doesn't know why there is no interest in mariculture from Western Alaskans.
"It might be due to a lack of awareness about the opportunity. A lack of funds has cut into our ability to create awareness and do more training," she said. Pring-Ham agreed that local CDQ groups might fund the launch of a lucrative aquatic farm industry in their regions.
First Alaskans, Bristol Bay commercial and sport fishermen, and business owners are off to London to meet this week with top Anglo-American mining officials at the global conglomerate's annual meeting. Anglo American is the developer behind the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska. Mining companies claim that the region holds some of the largest deposits of gold and copper in North America. The Pebble Project would provide badly needed jobs for hundreds of people. However, it is located at the headwaters of the world's most productive sockeye salmon fishery at Bristol Bay.
The AK2UK group of seven aims to convince the mining company that most of the region's residents oppose the mine, said Bobby Andrew, a spokesman of Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of the Land).
"We did an opinion survey of nearly 35 villages last March and 70 percent opposed the Pebble Project," Andrew said. "Surprisingly, 70 percent of the villages in the Iliamna region said they were opposed. That's kind of interesting because you sometimes get the sense that area supports the mine, but the survey says differently."
In visits to Alaska last year Anglo-American CEO Cynthia Carroll stated about the Pebble Mine: "If the people don't want it, then they are not going to do it."
U.K. media and the Royal Family are invited to the London premiere of "Red Gold," an award winning documentary about how the Pebble Mine would change people's lives. Follow the blog during the AK2UK trip at www.ak2uk.com/.