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Workforce Development: Safety at Sea Training in Washington

by Eric Scigliano, Washington Sea Grant

Commercial fishing is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations, nowhere more so than on the West Coast. Fatalities there have traditionally run even higher relative to hours fished than in Alaska, and the tribal salmon fishery along the Columbia River may have been the deadliest catch of all.  

Until about six years ago, death perched like a hungry seagull over the Columbia River fishery, which employs 600 to 800 fishermen from four tribes in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. “We had fatalities for three years in a row,” says Field Marketing and Safety Specialist Buck Jones at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which manages the fishery. “There was at least three in one season.”

A suite of factors lay behind this grim tally, Jones explains. Safety equipment such as personal flotation devices and survival suits was often outdated, broken, or absent entirely. Crewmembers didn’t know how or when to use it; as Jones says, “It’s no good if you’re not wearing it.” And they lacked training generally in the safety and rescue procedures that spell the difference between life and death in an emergency.

To fill this gap, the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission turned to Washington Sea Grant (WSG). For more than two decades, WSG has offered Coast Guard-certified on-site classes on onboard perils ranging from shipboard fires and men overboard to capsizes and emergency evacuations. Sarah Fisken, who coordinates the free classes, takes them where the fishermen are, from the ports of Bellingham, Port Townsend and Seattle to the Makah Tribe on remote Neah Bay and the Columbia River. In 2014 she and longtime colleagues Steve Harbell and Eric Olsson conducted WSG’s 100th safety class, having trained more than 1,000 fishermen over two decades. Harbell and Olsson have since retired, but the safety classes continue; WSG trained 211 fishermen in 2015.

“There was some resistance when we started the classes,” says Jones. “They were seen as kind of a hindrance, or a pain in the neck.” That resistance isn’t unique to the Columbia fleet. Fishermen anywhere can be reluctant to change their ways, as Fisken knows from firsthand observation. She herself worked as a deckhand and cook aboard fishing vessels¾a troller on Puget Sound, purse seiners in Southeast Alaska—in the 1970s and early ‘80s when very few women did.  “When I started out, we didn’t have anything for safety¾not even survival suits,” she recalls. Such experience confers essential onboard cred when dealing with crusty fishermen, “especially for a woman.”

Fisken and the instructors she enlists have adapted their safety curriculum for the Lummi Tribe’s sea-cucumber dive fishery. They’ve also developed separate classes in first aid  (emphasizing onboard emergencies such as hypothermia, near-drowning, lacerations and back-boarding) and navigating in the North Pacific’s famously fierce and fickle weather. In 2015, they launched a class in watchstanding, using a bridge simulator to teach basic navigation, rules of road, VHF radio and onboard lights. This preparation jumpstarts marine careers, making recruits useful as soon as they hit the bridge.

Bones aren’t the only things that get banged and broken at sea. Fisken also hosts hands-on workshop in essential marine technologies, from diesel and outboard engines to hydraulic, refrigeration and electrical systems. Learning to maintain and repair these systems makes fishing more efficient and economic: fishermen avoid expensive service and towing fees and save valuable fishing time. And it bolsters safety. A disabled, drifting boat is an endangered boat.

But it’s the safety classes, where WSG’s commitment to marine workforce training began, that yield the most dramatic results. In December 2015, soon after completing a class, all four crewmen on a Makah fishing vessel survived a nighttime sinking. In the six years since WSG brought its safety course to the Columbia, not a single tribal fisherman has perished on the river.

Improvements in safety gear and stricter enforcement by the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission have also helped make that fishery safer, says Buck Jones. But “the education and training really turned the corner.”

Safety at Sea Training program:

Read more on Washington Sea Grant’s training programs for boaters:

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