Shrimp­ing in Gulf among dead­li­est de­tails for those who live by the catch

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Hal Bernton

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.

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