Shrimping in Gulf among deadliest details for those who live by the catch
SEATTLE — America’s deadliest catch?
Forget about those crabs that crawl about the bottom of the chill Bering Sea.
It’s the shrimp that inhabit the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
During the past decade, 55 fishermen have perished in pursuit of these southern crustaceans, according to a first-of-its-kind federal study that ranks fishermen’s deaths in the nation’s seafood harvests. That’s compared with a death toll of 12 Bering Sea crabbers during the same time period.
“I am shocked,” veteran Texas shrimper Buddy Guindon said when informed of the study results. “It certainly doesn’t get near as rough down here as it does up there.”
Guindon said the shrimp fishery has evolved into a grueling derby where hundreds of vessels — large and small — compete for shares of the catch, and where crews sometimes work well past the point of exhaustion.
Crew members might lose their balance and pitch overboard in storms that may generate nasty, choppy waves. Or, they might get tangled in gear and dragged overboard, their absence unnoticed until much later.
Such deaths typically don’t grab many newspaper headlines — but over the past decade, they accounted for more than half of the fatalities in the Gulf shrimp harvest, according to the study by the Alaska office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
To compile the harvest fatalities, the authors, Alaska-based federal epidemiologist Jennifer Lincoln and her colleague Devin Lucas, reviewed Coast Guard reports that detailed 504 fishing-industry deaths from 2000 through 2009.
Aside from the Gulf shrimp harvest, the study found that other deadly fisheries — in terms of loss of life — included the Atlantic scallop harvest, with 44 deaths; the Alaska salmon harvest with 39 deaths; the Alaska cod and Northeast groundfish harvests with 26 deaths each; and the West Coast Dungeness crab harvest with 25 deaths.
The Bering Sea crab harvests had 12 deaths in that period, and the Northwest tribal salmon harvests had 10.
For epidemiologists, the sheer numbers fail to tell the whole story.
Whenever possible, the researchers tried to figure out the number of hours worked in a harvest to get a fatality rate that shows overall risk. That data wasn’t available for the Gulf shrimp harvest, so the calculation couldn’t be made, said Lincoln, a co-author of the study.
In the harvests where the total number of hours worked could be tallied, the fatality rate was highest in the Northeast groundfish harvests. That rate was more than double the rate in the Bering Sea crab harvests.
Lincoln said the Bering Sea crab fleet’s safety record has improved dramatically during the past 20 years. That reflects, in part, a Coast Guard crackdown on unstable vessels that sought to go to sea with too many of the steel-frame crab pots stacked on deck.
The Bering Sea crab harvest has also shifted from a derbystyle harvest where each vessel competed against the next for the biggest catch to a new system where each vessel has a predetermined quota. Fishermen, under the new system, might be more inclined to wait out bad weather, or catch a few hours of extra sleep because the loss of fishing time won’t affect their final catch tally.
Guindon said the Gulf shrimp’s derby-style harvest is “a nightmare,” and he would like to see a shift to a quota system.
A new shrimp season that opened last week off Texas is expected to attract more than 500 vessels. Many of these crews have been shut out of oil-fouled harvests elsewhere in the Gulf and are eager for an opportunity to fish, Guindon said.