April 25, 2008 -- The weathered sea captains who star in the Discovery Channel's reality series "Deadliest Catch" might be surprised to hear what safety researchers in the United States government think of them.
The notoriously dangerous crab-fishing industry on the frigid seas of Alaska's Bering Strait actually serves as a model for safety, according to Jennifer Lincoln, an occupational safety and health specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, specifically in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health division of safety research.
Crab fishing anywhere is one of the deadliest jobs in the United States. At times, men on deck work through freezing weather, daylong shifts, and brave up to 40-foot waves and 80 mph winds.
The fishermen who venture out on Alaskan crab fishing boats also face an average annual fatality rate of 115 deaths per 100,000 workers. The average job in the U.S. has a rate of four deaths per 100,000 workers.
But deaths among Alaskan commercial fisherman have dropped by half since 1990, thanks to strategic efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard, the fishing industry and government regulators, Lincoln said.
Now the smaller crab-fishing industries off the coasts of Washington state and California and Oregon can claim the title "deadliest."
The Pacific Coast states had twice the number of fatalities and a higher death rate than the Alaskan fishing industry from 2000 to 2006, Lincoln said. This safety record looks especially dire, considering that the Alaskan fishing industry is 10 times larger.
But Lincoln said she hopes to use the same techniques that proved effective in Alaska to save lives off the Western Pacific coast, especially in the Northwest Dungeness crab fishery.
"The Northwest Dungeness crab fleet had a greater number of fatalities and a higher fatality rate," Lincoln said.
Vessels lost at sea accounted for 74 percent of the deaths, while men thrown overboard made up 19 percent of the deaths. None were wearing flotation devices.
Nature was responsible for high waves, flooding and rough seas. However, NIOSH reports that human error and negligence such as unstable ships, failure to use safety equipment, and drug or alcohol use also contributed to the 58 mortalities.
"Safety improvement in Alaska did not occur through one intervention," said Lincoln, who added that tailoring the multitiered approach of inspection and safety measures used in Alaska would likely help the Pacific Coast fisheries.
Safer or not, the Alaskan king crab season continues to draw thousands of workers hoping to cash in on large harvests. According to AlaskaFishingJobFinder.com, a low-ranking deckhand can sometimes make $20,000 in a month.