Story last updated at 8/26/2009 - 2:10 pm
More than 200 Alaska fishermen have participated in a life-saving project aimed at reducing fatalities from falls overboard.
Falls overboard cause nearly a quarter of all fatalities in the fishing industry, and many are preventable.
"Since 1990 there have been 83 commercial fishermen who have died from falls overboard," said Devin Lucas, a project leader for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). "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."
But fishermen resist wearing PFDs, and safety specialists want to turn that around.
"A lot of fishermen tell us PFDs are bulky and hot and heavy, too uncomfortable to work in," Lucas said. "We started wondering if the newer models would face the same kinds of problems as with the older, bulkier foam PFDs."
The project targeted fishermen in Dutch Harbor, King Salmon, Kodiak, Homer, Seward and Bristol Bay, and included several different gear groups. Each of the 216 fishermen first filled out a survey asking them about their attitudes and knowledge about PFDs, and their perceived level of risk of falling overboard. Then they were randomly assigned six new styles of PFDs, which they wore for 30 days while fishing.
"When the guys looked at the types of PFDs we wanted them to try out they were really excited, because many had not seen the newer models and the features they have," said Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, director of the Anchorage-based NIOSH Commercial Fishing Safety Research program.
After the month-long field test, the fishermen were asked to rate the PFDs, to provide any modifications and "to describe what the perfect PFD is," Lincoln said.
One that holds promise comes from Norway - it includes flotation in the chest and back of the bibs in rain gear.
"We are really curious to see what they think about that, because it was developed for fishermen specifically," Lincoln said.
Another model automatically inflates with a hydrostatic release when a person hits the water.
"But I think the guys are a little hesitant about inflatable PFDs because they are afraid they will inflate while they're working," Lincoln said. "And that's the point of the whole study - to see if these assumptions are true."
Lincoln and Lucas said they were pleasantly surprised at how enthusiastic the fishermen were to take part in the PFD project. They are collecting their evaluations now, and still awaiting returns from a few stragglers.
Responses by longliners and salmon gillnetters at Bristol Bay are lagging well behind the trawlers and crabbers from Dutch Harbor, Lincoln said.
"Maybe we can start a little friendly fishing rivalry," she added with a laugh.
The ultimate goal is to take the recommendations to gear manufacturers and get more fishing-friendly PFDs out on the water.
"But unless the fishermen tell us, we can't go back to the manufacturer with any good information," Lincoln said.
Results of the PFD study will be revealed at Pacific Marine Expo in November.
Water samples collected this spring from the Gulf of Alaska show that acid levels are increasing more quickly and more severely than previously thought. The Gulf findings are similar to those seen in the Chukchi and Bering Seas.
Increased acidity robs the ocean of calcium carbonate, the building block of sea creatures' skeletons and shells. Alaska researchers already are seeing signs of corrosion in tiny shrimp-like pteropods - which make up 45 percent of the diet of Alaska pink salmon.
"A 10 percent drop in pteropod production would lead to about a 20 percent drop in salmon body weight. Obviously, the loss of pteropods would be extremely detrimental to pink salmon populations," said Bob Foy, director of the NOAA Research lab at Kodiak.
"We're not talking one hundred years here," echoed Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "This is likely to happen within decades.
"We need to give our policy makers and managers information and forecasts on ocean acidification in Alaska so they can make decisions that will keep our fisheries viable. "Ecosystems in Alaska are going to take a hit and right now, we don't know how they are going to respond."
Wanted: fish pix
The call is out for Alaska fishing photos to be used for promotions by Alaska Airlines and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Selected photos also will be featured in one of the most popular trades, Pacific Fishing Magazine.
"Our goal is to put a good face on the product that Alaska provides," said magazine editor Don McManman. "I think the best way to do that is by focusing on the people - the men and women who do such a fine job of catching the fish."
The print or digital photos must be taken in Alaska. The top prize is two tickets anywhere Alaska Airlines flies. McManman said the fishing photos will be on display at Pacific Marine Expo in November where a "People's Choice" will be selected.
Find info and entry forms for the "Take your best shot" photo contest online at www.pacificfishing.com, and on the inside cover of the September Pacific Fishing Magazine.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.