Is Crabbing a Dangerous Industry?

You’ve probably heard of the TV show on Discovery called Deadliest Catch. The show that people just can’t get enough of and has 16 seasons already, follows a group of fishermen and women who crab in the tumultuous Bering Sea. There are injuries, storms, freezing temperatures, and damage to boats. Although no one has died on the show due to job duties, that is not to say that others outside of the show do not. There is great peril and danger ahead when you step onto a crabbing boat and head out to sea. Being a fisherman or woman is not for the faint of heart; it takes a physically and mentally strong person to be able to weather the storms of the job.

Let’s take a look at the types of jobs on a vessel, the job duties of a fisherman, the risks they take every day at sea, and statistics that prove just how dangerous the crabbing industry really is. Lastly, you’ll learn what regulations and precautions crews follow in order to remain as safe as possible. 

**Note: In this article “fisherman/men” refers to both men and women.

What types of jobs are there to perform on a crab fishing vessel? 

All jobs and tasks on a crab fishing vessel are equally important to the success of the trip. From those who do the grunt work all the way up to the captain, it is necessary that everyone is proficient at their duties and responsibilities in order to make a profit but also to stay safe and come back to land alive and well. 

Types of jobs on a crab fishing vessel are as follows: 

  • Captain
  • Mate
  • Chief Engineer
  • Engineer’s Assistant
  • Cook
  • Lead Foreman
  • Deck Crew
  • Gear Crew
  • Factory Crew
  • Quality Control
  • Steward 

The company Alaskan Leader, for example, builds innovative longline fishing vessels. They own a boat on their fleet called the Bering Leader that ports out of Kodiak, Alaska and has “an easy-to-use system that improves baiting speed and accuracy.” This vessel currently has 25 crew members working on it.  

What are the job duties of a crab fisherman?

Since there are many types of jobs one can have on a vessel, let’s just look at two main jobs and what their important responsibilities are. 

Below are the job responsibilities for deck, gear, and factory crew.

Duties of Job

  • Handle lines to tie up vessel
  • Set and haul gear
  • Maintain gear
  • Thaw and break bait
  • Operate Combi
  • Run roller operation
  • Assist on deck (dip net)
  • Bleed fish
  • Run heading machine
  • Gutting of fish and ancillary products
  • Panning of product
  • Load and unload freezer plates
  • Bag and stow product
  • Offload and backload vessel

Training and Licenses

  • Commercial fishing license

Below are the job responsibilities for the lead foreman.

Duties of Job

  • Set and haul gear
  • Maintain all deck equipment/fishing gear and line
  • Inventory of all deck equipment
  • Report to Mate what is needed to maintain adequate stock of gear
  • Supervision of approximately eight deckhands who help set and haul gear
  • Responsible for getting as many freezers unloaded as possible between setting and hauling
  • Responsible for all operations on weathered decks, (i.e. stowing lines, securing garbage, etc)
  • Tie up boat
  • Haul mid-buoys
  • Operate crane safely and efficiently and run it during offloads and back-loads

Training and Licenses

  • Commercial fishing license
  • Recommended: Able Body Seaman licenses and CPR and/or First Aid Training

As you can see, each individual on a fishing vessel has a particular group of duties based on their unique skill set. If you take one of these jobs away, the vessel will be less safe and efficient. A vessel must have all of these job types.

What are the risks and dangers of being out at sea?

Commercial fishermen risk their lives each and every time they board their vessel and head out to sea. Working with the technical machinery on board has the risk of injury and the heavy crab-pots that weigh several hundred pounds poses a risk as well. Vessels head off to freezing waters and are at times caught in storms with strong winds and pelting rain. During storms, the vessels have a risk of capsizing or flooding, although there is a small chance of this happening. Historically, there have often been reports of fires on vessels, which have caused crew to evacuate. 

Common crab boat injuries include:

  • Broken bones
  • Hypothermia
  • Sprains and strains
  • Cracked ribs
  • Frostbite
  • Slip and fall
  • Loss of hearing or vision
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Hand, wrist and foot injuries

The problem with finding accurate data on fishermen injuries is that incidents often go unreported, and some injuries may appear (such as back or neck pain) until days after the occurrence. 

Dangerous Vessel Statistics

Between the years 2000 and 2015, 725 commercial fishermen died at sea, according to a report by the CDC. After reviewing the data, it was found that 49% of these occurred after a vessel disaster, 30% occurred when a fisherman fell overboard, 12% of these were deaths related to an injury that happened on board, and 9% were deaths that occurred while diving or while on shore. 

To be more specific about the vessel disasters, there were 354 fatalities that were caused by 212 separate vessel disasters between those 15 years. 25% of these were due to flooding, 19% occurred after the vessel was struck by a large wave, another 19% happened due to vessel instability. Over half of these incidents were caused by inclement weather. 

Safety precautions 

Even though there are some opposing views on this topic, thankfully there are regulations in order to reduce the risk to commercial fishermen and their vessels. There are federal rules and regulations that must be followed on how much fish a vessel can hold, on the machinery and equipment on board, and what licenses the crew must have. There are often Coast Guard checks that look at equipment and the number of crabbing pots on board. Immersion suits are available to all crew members and captains must train their crew on disaster and man-overboard exercises. 

The Fifth Coast Guard District, for example, has an online manual titled Safety Equipment and Requirements for Commercial Fishing Vessels, which highlights anything and everything safety-related. 

All-in-all, commercial fishing is going to be a dangerous job no matter what regulations and safety precautions are in place; but the risks can be reduced. Fishermen put their lives on the line each and every time they step aboard their vessel in order to give us a variety of fresh seafood to eat. We should give them all a hand for what they do to keep food on our plates and add healthy dishes to our cooking repertoire  

Are you interested in cooking a healthy seafood meal? Fathom Seafood has the freshest, live crab around and their blog has numerous articles about Dungeness crab recipes you can make for you and your family. Support local and commercial fishermen and women by buying seafood from Fathom today! 

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