Pacific Northwest Fishers Trawl in Danger's Wake

January 28, 2004

Thirty years ago, the Devil's Wind—hurricane force southerlies—swept along the Southern Oregon coast. It was mid-August and many commercial salmon fishermen were baiting their lines miles from the safety of Brookings Harbor. With gusts pushing over 80 knots, every boat on the sea risked capsizing.

"I watched my best friend, John Crook, die when his father's fishing boat was swamped and rolled by the waves near the jetty off the Chetco River," said captain John Fraser, owner of the 42-foot (12.5-meter) wooden fishing boat Njord, based in Harbor, Oregon. "I was only ten years old then. But every time I cross that sandbar near the jetty I still think about it."

Along with thousands of other fishermen along the Pacific Northwest coastline—stretching from northern California to Alaska—Fraser's decades of commercial fishing experience are sprinkled with memories of painstaking days at sea, and close brushes with death.

Alaskan waters offer some of the most hazardous commercial fishing in the world. Waves routinely reach 20 feet (6 meters) and heavy winter storms bring blankets of snow, hail, and ice. Fishermen who fall overboard in northern Alaskan waters, where winter water temperatures hover in the mid-30s Fahrenheit (1° to 2° Celsius), survive only minutes before hypothermia begins to set in. Alaskan fishermen die every year.

Many Alaskan Commercial Fishing Fatalities

Throughout the 1990s, the fatality rate for commercial fishermen in Alaska was 28 times that of the overall U.S. work-related fatality rate of 4.4 per 100,000 workers a year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Between 1992 and 1996, Alaska commercial fishing suffered 112 fatalities according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, based in Washington, D.C. Massachusetts claimed second place with 32 deaths; Oregon was fifth with 21.

"We're always helping the commercial fishermen," said Michael Mueller, small boat engineer of the Chetco River Station Coast Guard in Harbor, Oregon, who participated in dozens of rescues last year. "They go out far off the coast in the middle of winter and catch the worst stuff the Pacific Ocean has for them."

Dungeness crab season in Oregon began December 3, 2003, and will run through August 14, 2004. The most bountiful catch occurs during the first few days, when the population of crabs has had four months to recover from the pots of commercial fishermen, but when the weather is at its worst.

Fishermen Brave Storms Early in Fishing Season

During the 2002/2003 season, 23.7 million pounds (10.7 million kilograms) of crab were caught in Oregon, said John Seabourne, fisheries information systems manager for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, based in Salem. A large portion of that total catch was harvested during the first few days of the season, "regardless whether the ocean was stormy or calm."

In the world of commercial fishing, extreme weather is no excuse to remain on shore; and fishing accidents are far more common during the first days of any limited fishing period along the Pacific Northwest. In some regions, it's common to limit fishing opportunities to a three- or four-day window for certain populations, like Alaska's red king crab. When government quotas for a species are reached, the fishing stops.

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