Fishing vessel offshore

Commercial fishing is dangerous. Is it the work, or the workers?

Yesterday, the New York Times published an outstanding piece of journalism – A Speck in the Sea by Paul Tough. In it, Tough tells the story of John Aldridge, a Montauk lobsterman who fell overboard off Long Island this past summer. Aldridge spent 12 hours in the Atlantic using his boots for flotation until a Coast Guard helicopter spotted him and returned him, alive, to shore. Tough’s writing is outstanding, the story is incredible, and I think anyone who works offshore should read it. But what struck me most wasn’t Aldridge’s will to live or the harrowing details of his survival; it wasn’t the incredible search effort to find him, either. It was that Aldridge, like so many commercial fishermen before him, seemed to be trying very hard to die.

I’m beginning to think there is a disease that is caught early in a working fisherman’s life; it’s as if there is something in the scales of fish that wants to pay them back, something that gets under their skin.  Once in their blood it affects the brain and makes them more likely to die than any other group of professional mariners. It makes them believe that they are different; that fishing is more dangerous than every other job out there, and nothing can be done about it.

Tough unwittingly stumbles on the disease and expresses it perfectly toward the end of his article. Trying to explain the Montauk fishing community’s still-tearful recollection of Aldridge’s survival he writes  “…what seems to go mostly unspoken in their lives is the inescapable risk of their jobs, and the improbable fact that Aldridge hadn’t drowned in the Atlantic somehow underscored that risk for them even more.”

Did you catch that?  “…the inescapable risk of their jobs…”

And there you have it – the disease.  Most commercial fishermen, or most of the ones I’ve met in the back of a helicopter, believe that.  They believe that the dangers of being at sea are greater for them than for anyone else who goes to sea, and that the danger is inescapable. That belief causes them to not even try to escape the danger and they end up taking risks that other professional mariners successfully avoid every day.

I am thrilled John Aldridge survived, but if there was ever an example of CFD (Commercial Fishing Disease) in action it was this incident.  John Aldridge fell into the Atlantic after a handle broke on a cooler he was attempting to move – he fell backwards and off his boat. Here are some other details from his story:

  • At the time of the incident he had been awake for 22 hours.
  • He was working alone – in the middle of the night –  on the open deck of his lobster boat that was on autopilot.
  • The other two members of his crew were asleep.
  • He was supposed to wake up his partner for relief and get himself in the rack 4 hours earlier, but didn’t.
  • His crew, expecting to be woken up at 11:30 PM, finally awoke with the sunrise.
  • And of course, like so many others of his ilk, he was not wearing a PFD.

I’ve never heard of someone trying so hard to fall overboard without being noticed in my life. All that was missing was an icy deck. Inescapable danger? Not even close.

Now I hate an armchair quarterback as much as anyone, but I believe I have enough experience to throw a yellow flag on this play and make just a few comments about things that Aldridge and his crew might have done to “escape the risks” – or at least lessen their severity.

1. Never work alone on the deck of an open boat while 40 miles offshore when the boat is on autopilot. Regardless of any incident, someone seeing it happen can make all the difference. When the boat is moving, the chances of catching it are somewhere between zero and less than zero. (I’ve tried catching a moving boat… wearing fins… I didn’t come close.)

2. If you are going to work alone on the open deck of a boat while 40 miles offshore in the dark, consider wearing a life jacket.  This no-life-jacket habit among commercial fishermen is the most common indicator of CFD. Despite the fact that almost every other professional workboat mariner in the world does arduous offshore work while wearing flotation (even when they are not alone on deck), CFD makes fishermen believe that donning a life jacket will make their work impossible or somehow more dangerous.  (“It’s something else to snag and pull me overboard!” This is a statement made by many of those afflicted by CFD.  If you believe this, then you have it. Seek help.) For more thoughts on commercial fishing’s apparent attitude toward life jackets, safety rules, and other generally good ideas, click here.

3. If you go offshore for a living, consider spending about $275 on a Personal EPIRB.  These magical devices have no idea what you do for a living and will make sure that no matter when, where, and in most cases how you fell overboard, someone will immediately know who you are, where you are (exactly), and that you need help.  In Aldridge’s case, he would have likely been rescued within an hour of falling overboard for want of a button to push. Less than 300 bucks buys about six years’ of “HELP!” insurance in the event that you fall off of your wide open lobster boat while working alone at night, with or without a life jacket. Caution: CFD can make you believe that $275 is too much money.  If I was stranded offshore in the water, I’d trade my left leg for one.

4. Try to sleep more than zero hours every 24. Sleep makes you think better and operate more safely.  Numerous studies over the past decade have shown that staying awake for 22 hours causes impairment equal to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08%.  Aldridge was essentially drunk without alcohol by the time he pulled on that cooler. A more “sober” mind may have decided to wake someone up to help.

5. If you work on a boat where one person is awake while the rest of the crew sleeps, then 1. Reconsider that arrangement, and 2. Spend five dollars on an alarm clock. This will make sure you are awake to prevent other crew members from even trying to work 24 hours without sleep under the false romantic notion that being tough enough not to sleep is admirable.

There is hope out there that CFD is not a real disease, but rather a culture problem within the industry that some are trying to change. Fred Mattera is a fisherman on a mission to shift the culture and reel in the cowboys of his industry. The death of a friend’s son on a nearby boat affected him so much that he started a movement to make things better. I hope he is successful. I’m sure he is making a difference.

Perhaps Aldridge and his crew will change some things as well. It’s hard to imagine that they haven’t already.  Aldridge apparently knew that what he was doing was a bad idea – but CFD is powerful. From Tough’s article:  “Looking back, John Aldridge knew it was a stupid move. When you’re alone on the deck of a lobster boat in the middle of the night, 40 miles off the tip of Long Island, you don’t take chances.” 

If you think that the dangers of your job are inescapable, then taking chances is all you’ve got. Perhaps it is time for commercial fishermen to realize that their job is more dangerous than it needs to be, that most of the risk in their work is unnecessary, and perhaps they should stop trying so hard to die out there.


Share →

  • RogerGErickson

    instead of “That belief causes them to not even TRY sometimes, to take risks that most professional mariners successfully avoid.”

    surely he meant one of the following?
    “not even try to avoid” or
      “not even try to mitigate”

    Plus, to be fair, the author should cover both RISKS (known calamities occurring at some roughly known rate) and UNCERTAINTIES (unexpected calamities, plus known calamities occurring at some completely unknown rate).

    Conflating risk with rank uncertainty is the most common way people get into trouble. It’s more than just an issue of semantic sloppiness.

    NASA knows the difference, as do those professionals in many fields who actually do survive and prosper.

  • LymeBayRIBchart

    britishracingg: brill follow up. Trying Very Hard To Die: The Preventable Disease in Commercial Fishing samdell4

  • Mario Vittone

    RogerGErickson Nasa

  • Paul Sucia

    Excellent article from an author with authority and experience in the subject; recommend reading the whole NYT article for the details.  
    However,  what you call CFD is not exclusive to commercial fishermen; it is common in some other potentially risky activities. It is commonly called macho or machissmo and has similar results. It particularly afflicts young males under 40.  So glad he survived.

  • Peter Wright

    You will have a hard time changing the habits of fishermen.Those I was brought up with couldn’t swim and never even carried lifejackets as such things would only prolong the agony. There is a marked change now as I think that many younger fishermen are less fatalistic and much more family orientated which can only be good.

    Raymarine manufacture a little button that when it gets more than 30 feet from the master control, sets off an alarm and plots a MOB fix on the GPS screen.  This helps in lone worker situations but even when working in teams it is easy not to miss someone for a significant amount of time .In this case it would have made a huge difference. I have fitted many systems to private yachts. Strangely,I get complaints when they go off accidentally.These are when crew jump ashore to secure warps or forgetting they have them on, head up the pontoons. I say “At least it shows they are working.”There is often a brief shock when they realise that that is the truth.

  • Flipper184

    Thanks for the writing,I’ll share it. Hope it does some good .

  • MMVittone

    SamSifton Soundbounder Thanks for the (serious) link. Tough’s article was excellent. Arldidge’s accident was preventable.

  • jeremiahblatz

    Great followup to a great article. I have a question about safety gear. At least in an offshore sailing context, many folks say that a lifejacket is actually much less useful than a tether. In this case, for example, if the water was colder, a life jacket probably would have made no difference. Is there are reason that people push life jackets over tethers for offshore work? Does the tether get in the way enough that people flat out refuse? Is it just decades of habit to push lift jackets?

  • MMVittone

    paultough NYTmag – A Speck in the Sea is an awesome piece of writing –

  • Oldchefsteve

    paultough This raises interesting issues on the entire culture of these fascinating folks. So, how’s the book coming?

  • CaptainGerryBurns

    Mario, I salute you on your excellent article on CFD. This disease is also endemic in the Irish Fishing Industry with frequent fatalities & near misses. I started going to sea with my grandad in an open boat in 1959 when I was 4 years old and for the next 14 years I spent all of my school holidays on CFBs, trawling, potting, drift-netting, etc. I joined the MN in ‘ 73 and have been 40 years at sea, have a Class 1Masters with 30 years in command of many varied ship types. I have been a volunteer CG officer and RNLI volunteer and have many friends & family in the CF industry. I can honestly confirm that everything you say is as apt for here as it is for the USA & the UK.

  • oceansmiles

    jeremiahblatz  Actually, if the water was colder, a life jacket could have made a huge difference:   (I’m not sure about tethers.)

  • oceansmiles

    jeremiahblatz Mario (my husband) says that you are right- a tether keeping you to the boat is much better than a life jacket, but he thinks the problem with tethers on workboats is that they are too restrictive for most of the movement required to do the jobs (unlike sailors, who simply walk fore and aft and use jacklines to secure the tethers). You’re still right- tethers are a very good idea and Mario says he wishes he’d put them in the article!

  • Northsea fisherman

    workingclothes and coveralls with floating abilities exist! as well an inflatable west, which won’t be restricting your movement, and isn’t that expensive…
    In other parts of the world, where sometimes the weather is even worse, people have accepted that accting like an idiot on a walk in the park will get you killed someday. 
    Unfortunately “Deadliest chatch” and other shows like it are not helping changing the culture.

  • Doug Bostrom

    “Safety is too expensive; I’m only just scraping by.” 

    Thinking in terms of PEPIRB price versus the opportunity costs and choices  presented in Tough’s article:

    $275 amortized over 6 years equals:

    — ~137 $2 beers in a bar, or the loss of ~23 beers per year, or about a beer every other week;

    — I’m not really up on pot prices but I’m going to say that 1/2 an ounce of decent weed at $275 every 6 years is not an existentially threatening loss.

    — At $15/deluxe pizza, that’s about 18 pizzas, or the loss of one pizza every 4 months.

    — ~1 fewer super-deluxe coffees per week, or four $1 coffees.

  • learnmore

    Although we could debate the details, Mario’s general line of thinking is valid.  I do not go to sea, but I have flown my entire adult life, and have an ATP – Airline Transport Pilot license.  In aviation, Mario’s line of thinking is prevalent as we train and fly.  In no way does it diminish my respect for Aldridge to try to learn from his experience and take steps to improve my own odds.

  • timoketonen

    paultough NYTmag Brilliant survival story, thank you for writing and sharing this #long-form #journalism

  • Sailing Anarchy

    Thanks Mario for once again helping to save lives.  And screw you, Paul Tough, for glamorizing ignorance and stupidity much like Redford’s movie earlier this year.  More here:

  • Peter Wright
  • CaptainGerryBurns

    Peter Wright “Fell” as in the expression “I fell pregnant”

  • Iain Campbell38

    You may find some research I completed in 2006 interesting.  

    We set out to examine just this phenomenon, although we didn’t call it a disease it is exactly this attitude to safety that prompted the study.  

    Anyone interested can read it here

  • PMO_W

    GiovanniFanfoni gli specializzati che montano ponteggi ragionano esattamente come il pescatore, indossano imbracature solo a viva forza.

  • GiovanniFanfoni

    PMO_W sì, inoltre leggo che il pescatore non dormiva da 24 ore e che lavorava da solo sul ponte (in mezzo all’oceano)

  • GiovanniFanfoni

    PMO_W spesso i peggiori disastri sono dovuti a errori organizzativi: Maurizio Catino estratto

  • PMO_W

    GiovanniFanfoni il titolo mi pare chiarissimo, non è vero?

  • paciscor

    PMO_W muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni Mi veine in mente il settore costruzioni da noi…

  • PMO_W

    paciscor esattamente! Ma temo ci siano paralleli in agricoltura e industria muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni

  • PMO_W

    paciscor esattamente! Ma temo ci siano paralleli in agricoltura e industria muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni

  • paciscor

    PMO_W muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni Sicuramente. L’anno scorso vedevo un po’ di quelle trasmissioni che glorificavano questo e altri lavori

  • paciscor

    PMO_W muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni Tipo deadliest catch o quella sui minatori o sui boscaioli, o i trivellatori e pensavo: questi so’ matti!

  • PMO_W

    paciscor muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni interessante osservazione, includi sport “estremi” e vari sciumacher: profonde radici culturali

  • paciscor

    PMO_W muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni Machismo da operetta… ma sai quante volte bisogna costringere con le minacce la gente a usare i DPI?

  • PMO_W

    paciscor appunto lo so e ti si risponde pure con sorta di sciopero bianco! muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni

  • paciscor

    PMO_W muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni Ma quello mi starebbe pure bene, al limite, almeno si attiene alle prescrizioni! :o)

  • PMO_W

    paciscor diciamo che non è proprio così virtuoso … muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni

  • PMO_W

    paciscor muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni essendo problema culturale sicurezza dovrebbe essere trasmessa sin dalle elementari

  • PMO_W

    paciscor puntano su quanto è figo chi è più bardato-ninja? :) muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni

  • paciscor

    PMO_W muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni No sono quei parchi dove ti arrampichi sugli alberi e fai i percorsi sospesi con imbracatura e moschettoni

  • paciscor

    PMO_W muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni Ce n’è un paio dove sono stato dove sono molto coscienziosi e la figliolanza risponde molto bene.

  • PMO_W

    paciscor infatti intendevo proprio dire che creano immagine positiva DPI :) poi nulla meglio di gioco x imparare muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni

  • paciscor

    PMO_W muzzarca GiovanniFanfoni Ah, in quel senso! Sì :o)

  • Mark S Phillips

    Your article while maybe well intention-ed leaves a whole lot out. The biggest part left out is that part of the government wants to kill us. One regulation in the scallop industry cut crew size from 13 to 7, another force boats to steam 3 or 4 days fish 2-4 days steam 3-4 days to unload in the middle of the winter, when the closest port is less then 12 hours away. Your comment about an alarm clock sounds cute, but the reality is most of us have a bridge alarm and use it. In the winter my crew wear the foul weather gear that floats. The most important thing for a captain and crew is know the limits of your boat and crew. 
    I have a lot of respect for the SAR crews but the monday quarterbacks in the public and Coast Guard leave a lot to be desired of.  Commercial fishing is a life style that is not for everyone, it is hard work complicated by many regulations that differ state to state, federal agency to federal agency many contradictory to one another. Making the public understand the complexities is almost impossible.

  • Jeff

    Seems a little like common sense… I told the story about Mr. Aldridge’s rescue to my children and my four-year old (who sails with me) asked, “Why wasn’t he wearing a life jacket?”

  • Mario Vittone

    Mark S Phillips – I agree, the issue is very complex. Also, the shortening of seasons puts extreme pressure on the operations and makes working while fatigued a necessity.  But none of those factors changes the fact that the ocean does not care what industry you are in.  Once you fall overboard, everyone is equal.  My points are valid (I believe that or I wouldn’t have made them I guess) – for very little money – and sometimes none – fishermen can be safer and die less often.  I’m sorry if that notions offended anyone, I really would just like to see less of you die every year.

  • heddahfeddah

    anchorsaj great points that needed to be said.

  • Driller

    I would put my signature below every single word of that article. Everybody wants to tell a story in their old days and surely most people in the gCaptain community wants theirs to be one full of adventure, if not we would have chose other jobs than ours and not know about gCaptain’s existence. But the point is, when do not arrive to your old days, there is no more story to be told, with or without adventure. You just become a statistic and someone else tells your story thet way they like…

  • EliezerNavarsky

    The fact of the matter is that with PLB’s now costing less then $500.00 and some costing $300.00 or thereabouts there’s absolutely no reason why every crew member shouldn’t get one. Plus, there’s no reason for any vessel to sail without a watch keeper.

    Yes, the sea can be dangerous in and off itself. However, crews doing stupid things makes those dangers inherently greater.

  • The Salty Shrimper

    Great tips.  I hope these hard headed, old school boys take note!

Sign up for the gCaptain Newsletter!

Over 31,000 people receive the gCaptain email newsletter every single day. Get the maritime and offshore industry headlines that matter sent straight to your inbox. Or LIKE us on Facebook!

We will not share your email address with anybody for any reason