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Trying To Tame The (Real) Deadliest Fishing Jobs

On the fishing-boat piers of New England, nearly everyone knows a fisherman who was lost at sea.

Boat captain Joe Neves remembers when a crew member got knocked overboard. "We heard him screaming 'Help me!' " Neves says, grimacing. "But you know, on the water at night, your head is like a little coconut." They didn't find him.

Mike Gallagher discovered a friend who was entangled in still-running hydraulics. "I knew right away he was dead," he says.


And Fred Mattera was fishing 125 miles off the coast of Cape Cod when the 21-year-old son of a close friend succumbed to poisonous fumes in a nearby boat. "That was a brutal week in this port," he says.

The Deadliest Catch

The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks commercial fishing as the deadliest job in the United States. And despite the popular notion from reality TV's Deadliest Catch, which features Alaskan crab fishermen, the most dangerous American fishery is in the Northeast.

From 2000 to 2009, workers in the Northeast's multi-species groundfish fishery (which includes fish such as cod and haddock) were 37 times more likely to die on the job as a police officer.

A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report shows that 70 percent of those deaths and those in the second-deadliest fishery, Atlantic scallops, followed disasters such as a vessel catching fire, capsizing or sinking. Most of the rest came from onboard injuries or falling overboard — often caused by heavy overhead equipment.


Not one of those who fell overboard and drowned was wearing a life jacket.

An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, NPR News and WBUR in Boston found that despite earning the odious ranking as America's deadliest job, commercial fishing in the Northeast operates in a cultural tradition and regulatory environment that thwarts promising safety measures.

Out To Sea, Out Of Mind

Despite the strikingly high fatality rate in the fishing industry, pushes for reform have taken decades to come to fruition. In 1988, Congress required fishing boats to carry life boats, personal flotation devices and other safety equipment.

Yet while the Coast Guard mandates seaworthiness inspections of passenger ferries and other commercial vessels, fishing boats are not inspected.

"We've ... requested authority to do inspections on vessels," says Jack Kemerer, chief of the fishing vessels division of the Coast Guard. Congress did not include that power in the U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010.

"So I can't answer why or why not," Kemerer says. "But, you know, it's not that we haven't asked for it in the past."

The Last Of The Ocean Cowboys

Most fishermen don't want to be supervised. Some are fatalistic about their life on the seas. New England fishermen used to buy steel-toed boots, believing that if they fell into the frigid Atlantic, it was better to drown faster. Others espouse a rugged individualism and see themselves as the last cowboys on the ocean.

At Chatham Harbor on Cape Cod, Bill Amaru runs one of the last cod-fishing boats from a harbor that used to be so prolific, fish markets labeled cod Chathams. Now, strict federal rules limit how much he can catch. Many other cod fishermen have gone out of business. Amaru doesn't like the idea of the feds inspecting his boat.

"If there's a resentment to these kinds of rules," Amaru says as he moors his boat in the harbor, "it's based on the overall huge number of regulations that have come down on our industry in the last decade — so much federal 'nanny state,' kind of telling us how to operate — when I think I have a pretty good understanding of what I need to do to keep safe."

Still, the 2010 law requires boat owners like Amaru to prove that their safety equipment is up to date. Coast Guard checks have forced many fishermen to throw out old and disintegrating life rafts, and replace the expired batteries from their emergency signal beacons.

But just because a boat has updated safety gear doesn't mean the crew knows how to use it.

'We Will Make This A Safer Industry'

When Fred Mattera raced his boat to help fishermen overcome by poisonous fumes in a nearby boat in 2001, he didn't know exactly what to do to help them. The radio was no help, either.

"What I heard there was this hodgepodge [of] try this, try that," Mattera remembers. "And nobody knew for certain."

When 21-year-old Steven Follett, the son of a close friend, died, Mattera was frustrated. Some people in port called him a hero for trying. "Being a hero is ... someone survives," he says, shaking his head.

Mattera told his friend he would make good come from the loss of life. "I just said, I promise you, we need to change the culture. We will make this a safer industry."

The incident turned Mattera into a safety evangelist. Earlier this month, he helped the crews of two boats organize a disaster training and man-overboard exercise.

'Get Your Panic Out Now!'

In one exercise, crew members clumsily put on bright orange-red survival suits. Insulated, watertight and buoyant, the suits cover each fisherman from head to toe; only their faces are exposed. They step off the boat into the calm dockside water. But even in these conditions, wearing what some guys call a "Gumby suit" feels claustrophobic to some, and they thrash around until they get their bearings.

"Get your panic out now!" Fred Matter shouts from the deck. The crew members are practicing abandoning ship in the case of a fire or capsizing. The immersion suits are designed to keep them alive and afloat in the icy Atlantic until someone can rescue them.

Mattera coaches them to link up with each other back-to-back and paddle together over to a life raft and climb in.

When it's all over, the crew looks winded.

"There's a 'Holy crap!' issue to it," boat captain Norbert Stamps says of the training. "You jump in, you kind of realize that this isn't fun and games. This is real serious stuff. And you gotta practice, and you gotta know what to expect."

Crew member Mike Gallagher says fishermen-organized trainings are becoming more common. "To be honest with you," he says, "the safety thing hasn't really been paid much attention to until the past several years. Really, it's been overlooked."

Learning From Alaska

Alaskan waters had been viewed as the most hazardous place for commercial fishing — that is, until a closer focus on safety reduced the number of fatalities in those fisheries.

"I believe that fishermen want to be safe," says National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health epidemiologist Jennifer Lincoln, who's based in Alaska. "They just want things to be practical. They want the solutions to really address the hazards that exist."

In Alaska, fishermen, state regulators and the Coast Guard have worked together to make fishing less deadly:

  • Bering Sea crabbing boats now transport fewer crab pots when they head out to sea. In turn, that weight limit prevented capsizing. Fatalities fell by 60 percent.
  • Because capsizing often occurred in deaths of Alaska's salmon fishermen, skiff operators are now allowed the option of leaving immersion suits off their small boats, as long as they wear a life preserver at all times.
  • Pilot projects with life preservers designed for their working conditions encouraged scallop boats to require crew members to wear them.
  • That kind of safety progress is what Fred Mattera and others want to replicate in the Northeast, the home of today's deadliest catch. Since that deadly accident in 2001, Mattera has trained hundreds of fishermen at Point Judith in Narragansett, R.I. But he's not done.

    "I'm just a fisherman," Mattera says. "That's what I loved, and that's what I did for a long time. I promised a family we'd make a difference. [As long as] I'm still breathing, that's what we're going to strive to do."

    Mattera hopes that someday, the deadliest job in America will only be as dangerous as it has to be, and not one bit more.

    Our stories about dangers in the commercial fishing industry were jointly reported by the Center for Public Integrity, WBUR in Boston and NPR News. The stories are part of CPI's Hard Labor series on workplace safety.

    Copyright 2023 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.