PHIPPSBURG — Lobstering is a dangerous occupation, a fact that Steve Train doesn’t need to be reminded of. Train has fallen overboard twice in his career as a lobsterman fishing in Casco Bay. Even so, he refuses to wear a lifejacket because he said they are too expensive and too cumbersome. One organization, however, is trying to change that perception.

To reduce lobstering fatalities, Lifejackets for Lobstermen – an initiative of the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety – is traveling to coastal communities including in Phippsburg and Wiscasset, selling discounted lifejackets to commercial lobstermen.

According to the Center for Disease Control, drowning after falling overboard is the second leading cause of death among commercial fishermen nationwide. Between 2000 and 2016, unintentional falls overboard resulted in 204 fatalities in the U.S. Sixty-two of those deaths occurred on the East Coast, 18 of which were New England lobstermen. None of the victims wore a personal flotation device.

There is no law requiring lobstermen to wear a lifejacket while working, however, Maine state law requires each person on board to have access to a U.S. Coast Guard-approved lifejacket. Boats longer than 16 feet must also have a personal floatation device that can be thrown into the water.

“The Maine Lobstermen’s Association strongly encourages lobstermen to wear lifejackets at all times,” said Andi Pelletier, the association’s membership director.

“You never know when you’re going to go overboard, and once you’re in the water, the lifejacket on the boat isn’t going to do you any good,” said Julie Sorensen, project leader of Lifejackets for Lobstermen. “It’s a public health problem that has a solution, so we’re working with lobstermen to solve that problem.”


However, Train said he found lifejackets are difficult to maneuver in, too hot to wear in the summer and, considering how much seawater and bait he gets on himself each day, “You’d have to buy a new one every month.”

Jim Merryman, owner of Interstate Lobster Inc. in Harpswell, has been a lobsterman for 40 years and has never worn a lifejacket.

“Many times they’d be a hazard to wear,” Merryman said.

Merryman said if his ankle were to get caught in the line of lobster traps going overboard, the trap would pull him down, but a lifejacket would pull his torso up making it difficult to bend over and cut himself free.

“It’s a dangerous business no matter how you cut it,” said Merryman.

While Merryman doesn’t wear a lifejacket, he underwent cold water training and keeps survival suits, full-body neoprene suits designed to keep someone warm in cold water, onboard but recognizes the suit doesn’t guarantee survival.


“We fish year-round, so we’re primarily dealing with water below 50 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Merryman. “If you’re not rescued within an hour or two, you’re going to die.”

“Old habits die hard,” Sorensen said. “In the past, I believe there was a reason for having a bad relationship with lifejackets. Traditionally lifejackets are bulky and the selection of comfortable and breathable was never available.”

Sorensen added many of the lifejackets offered by Lifejacket for Lobstermen are easily washable. There are also varieties that strap around the wearer’s waist like a belt, allowing the wearer to have full range of motion in their arms and torso. Others are thin, but can inflate when a toggle is pulled, allowing the wearer to cut themselves free from an entangled line, and then inflate their lifejacket to keep themselves afloat.

“It’s hard to do something new and have a new relationship with something you haven’t had the best relationship with,” Sorensen said. “We have so many options. We come to the fishermen and answer questions, there’s no reason not to try it.”

All of the lifejacket models are commercially available and were selected after being tested by lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts. Eleven models will be available at prices ranging from $19-$120 after the 50% discount. The discount is available to commercial lobstermen and commercial fishermen with a bycatch lobster license.

“Accidents happen in a second in any situation, and you don’t have time to put on a survival suit,” said Pelletier. “If you get knocked overboard and you’re knocked unconscious, a lifejacket will keep your head above water.”

The Lifejackets for Lobstermen will be at Phippsburg Town Hall Aug. 5-7 from 11 5 p.m., then move to Town Pier on Water Street in Wiscasset Aug. 8 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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