Falling overboard is the second biggest killer of U.S. fishermen, second only to vessel sinkings.

From 2000 through 2016, 204 fishermen died after falling overboard. Nearly 60 percent were not witnessed and nearly 90 percent were never found.  In every case, not one fisherman was wearing a life jacket.

“I think there is a social stigma against it. It doesn’t look cool, it’s a sort of macho thing. I also think there is a lack of awareness of the fact that there are really comfortable, wearable PFDs.”

Jerry Dzugan is director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

A new report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows that most falls overboard occurred on the East Coast, followed by the Gulf of Mexico’s shrimp fishery.

Alaska ranked third with 51 deaths overall; the salmon drift gillnet fishery was the deadliest with 16 fatalities. Jerry Dzugan –

“When things go south on a small open boat it happens quickly. Swamping in particular, being hit by one wave and not being able to recover and filling up the boat. Sometimes fishing alone or just with two people, or sometimes being in open waters. I think all of those combine to have those being a particularly high risk.”

Falling overboard deaths are largely preventable. Reducing fall hazards on deck and using man overboard alarms and recovery devices were suggested in the NIOSH report. Jerry Dzugan has two top safety tips —

“Number one is getting people to wear PFDs that are comfortable and they can work in. Number 2 is doing drills, what to do in the case of an emergency and making sure everyone has a duty and knows that bad things can happen and everyone is prepared for that.”

Dzugan says to also make sure your boat is watertight, keep survival gear maintained, and get enough sleep.

Although fishermen have been somewhat slow to adopt preventive measures, he says there has been tremendous improvement.

“Oh my gosh, it’s been a total cultural change. You’re looking in the 1970s an average of about 38-40 a year in Alaska to the last five years, an average of 3 to 4. So I’m really optimistic. The arc of improvement in fishing vessel safety has been a long one but it’s been steadily upwards.”

There were 10 fishing deaths in Alaska last year; the average overall is 3.5 deaths.

Find links to the NIOSH fatal falls overboard report here —-