Dangers of the Deep
Fishing is one of America's most perilous jobs. Can anything be done to make it safer?
There was nothing perfect about the storm that capsized the Northern Edge as it scoured the sea bottom off Nantucket, Mass., for scallops last winter.
It was five days before Christmas, and the 10-foot waves kicked up by an approaching low-pressure system made the 75-foot boat bob like a rubber duck in a bathtub. As the boat's six-man crew raced to top off their catch, one of the dredges that scoop up the shellfish got hung up on the seafloor. Its cable tightened, and the vessel listed sharply to starboard. Water gushed over the rail, swamping the deck and flooding the engine room and crew compartments.
Unable to clear the water from the deck or reach their neoprene survival suits, the crew members scrambled to free a life raft, but it fell overboard before they could inflate it. So deckhand Pedro Furtado jumped into the water, grabbed hold of the raft, and pushed the inflate button. Then he called to the others to abandon ship, but only one jumped overboard.
Doomed. Within 10 minutes, the Northern Edge rolled over and sank, drowning the remaining crew members and leaving Furtado floating alone on the high seas until he was rescued by another fishing boat. "They were there, and then all of a sudden they weren't," the 22-year-old native of Portugal recalls of a moment he has spent the past five months trying to forget.
The sinking was New England's worst fishing accident since 1991, when the Andrea Gail and its six crew members were lost in the "perfect storm," later recounted in a book and movie. But the Northern Edge tragedy was hardly a rare occurrence. Commercial fishing ranks among the nation's most dangerous occupations (chart, Page 45), despite safety rules passed by Congress more than a decade ago. In 2003 (the most recent year for which data are available), an average of about one fisherman died on the job every week--while many others suffered serious injuries.
Fishermen are a famously independent bunch, and they have long resisted the sort of safety regulations that are compulsory in other workplaces. Against their opposition, the first and only law aimed at improving the industry's safety record was passed by Congress in 1988. The Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act requires boats to carry life rafts, survival suits, and emergency beacons in the event of an accident--steps that Coast Guard officials say have since helped lower the number of annual fatalities.
The Coast Guard has other safety rules as well. But provisions to prevent an accident--such as requirements that most boat captains be licensed and submit to mandatory dockside safety examinations--have never been passed. The Coast Guard now conducts voluntary examinations, but only about 6 percent of boats participate. "The fishermen aren't going to do it on their own," says Capt. Michael Karr, chief of the Coast Guard's investigations and analysis office. "Until we make inspections mandatory, we're going to have 60 people drown and 140 boats sink every year." Karr and his colleagues have repeatedly asked for legislation to do just that, including a proposal presented to Congress last week that would create a pilot program for mandatory dockside examinations.