Alaska’s second fatality-free year of commercial fishing could be part of a trend

Fishing boats in Ketchikan Thomas Basin harbor in October. (Stein/KRBD).

Alaska’s commercial fishing fleets have seen fatalities this year for only the second time since records began. The US Coast Guard says the loan belongs to the fishermen themselves.

For the first time since 2015, Alaska has gone a year without a commercial fish kill. The Coast Guard said that in the 12 months ended September 30, no one died falling overboard, in an accident on deck or on a sinking ship.

Scott Wilwert is the Coast Guard Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Coordinator. He said deaths had been almost halved in the past decade.

“From 1990 to 1999 we had 210 fatalities in Alaska that we would classify as operational, commercial fishing fatalities,” Wilwert said. “And in the 10-year period from 2000 to 2009, that went from 210 to 107. And then from 2010 to 2019 to 62.”

Wilwert said there have been just 10 commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska since 2020.

“So yes, we’re definitely seeing a downward trend in the number of commercial fatalities in the industry,” he said.

But what exactly is causing this shift down?

Wilwert said it was a combination of changing fishing regulations and an industrial culture focused on preventing accidents.

“I think the fishermen that I come into contact with and all our (port) inspectors that they come into contact with are much more safety conscious, they understand the risks, they make the preparations, you know, and that is a big piece of the puzzle,” he says.

Wilwert said this was a sharp contrast to the ’70s and ’80s, when short openings encouraged captains to fish in a full sprint — sometimes at the expense of safety.

“The way fishermen in certain sectors can now, to a degree, choose when to go out, maybe skip a weather window or look for a better weather window, as opposed to the old Derby days, like you know, back then in the ’70s and ’80s when, you know, overloading or deckloading fish or overrunning gear because you only had six or eight days to catch all the crab or halibut or whatever,” he said.

Wilwert stressed how important it is for seafarers to keep up to date on safety recommendations and equipment, and to take the dockside exams offered by the Coast Guard – before it’s too late.

“The time to learn how to use this stuff is not the moment of truth,” he said.

Tracy Welch is executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska.

You know, we’re a big industry, but in a way, we’re (a) really small industry,” Welch said. “Everyone knows someone who knows someone, right? And that is why these deaths are tragic.”

Welch said she also thinks things have changed in the last few decades when it comes to education.

“I think with the younger generation of fishermen coming in and moving towards more streamlined fishing, as opposed to Derby style fishing, people have an opportunity to focus on safety and making sure people get it on Getting home at the end of the day. ” She said.

Welch said she hopes the trend continues.

Raegan Miller is a member of the Report for America Corps for KRBD. Your donation of our RFA grant helps her write stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at

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