Every time a Coast Guard crew embarks on a rescue mission to a commercial fishing vessel, we all want the same outcome – a successful rescue and safe return to shore. Maine communities know too well those outcomes vary.

Friends and family of the four fishermen who perished aboard the Portland-based Emmy Rose held a vigil at this makeshift memorial on the Maine State Pier in Portland on Nov. 25. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

We rescued four fishermen in November 2018 after the Aaron & Melissa II sank 50 miles south of Rockland. Two years later, last November, we lost four fishermen when the Emmy Rose sank northeast of Provincetown. And a year ago this Saturday, Joe Nickerson and Christopher Pinkham perished when the Hayley Ann sank 47 miles southeast of Cape Elizabeth.

When accidents like these occur, the Coast Guard, sometimes in conjunction with the National Transportation Safety Board, conducts investigations to determine an accident’s causes. While our rescue missions provide clear outcomes, success or failure, our investigations are often less decisive. When a boat sinks unexpectedly, it can be difficult to clearly determine what occurred in the crew’s final hours and minutes.

With the help of families, fishermen, boat builders and many others with a connection to the Hayley Ann, we recently concluded a yearlong probe into the accident. The final report now awaits approval by officials at Coast Guard Headquarters. An investigation into the Emmy Rose sinking is ongoing. It’s led by the Coast Guard’s 1st District staff, based in Boston, partly because the accident location and the boat’s homeport cross federally defined zones.

Investigations take time, but it’s no mystery as to what’s causing commercial fishing deaths. During a 15-year period (2000-2014), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that falls overboard and vessel disasters caused by flooding, instability and fires are the leading causes of fishing-related fatalities. What’s less known is that fishing vessels under 79 feet and operating beyond 3 miles offshore are not required to meet the same regulatory standards as vessels over 79 feet. If you’ve ever spent a minute in a Maine port, you know that most fishing boats here are under 79 feet.

For these vessels, federal requirements are scant. The Coast Guard’s safety program focuses largely on life-saving equipment, not vessel condition or machinery, which are critical factors commonly linked to flooding, instability and fires. To improve safety, we created a voluntary guide in 2017 detailing safety initiatives and good marine practices. There are plenty of sound ideas in the guide, but getting fishermen to improve safety, especially critical vessel functions like stability, takes more than a list of suggestions. There’s a quote in an NTSB report on the 2017 sinking and loss of all six souls aboard the Deception in Alaska that proves this point. Referring to a stability and safety check offered prior to departure, the captain stated that “if it wasn’t a requirement, then he didn’t want one.”

To appropriately honor fishermen, we must find ways to increase safety while balancing the impacts to fishermen, many of whom, in Maine and elsewhere, are the equivalent of small-business owners. Fisheries and fishing vessels differ by region, so the complexities of this problem cannot be overstated.

Where to start? The easiest and cheapest place is to mandate lifejacket wear while working on deck. Lifejackets are required on board, so to fishermen this simple proposal is cost neutral, but it takes a major culture change. According to NIOSH, of the 210 fishermen who died from falls overboard between 2000 and 2014, not a single one was wearing a lifejacket.

A more difficult problem to solve is managing vessel condition and stability. Naval architects, marine surveyors and boat repairs aren’t cheap. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of accidents where degraded condition and reduced stability were causal factors. A good starting point here would be to require all vessel owners to maintain accurate logs containing original stability characteristics and changes to a vessel’s weight and configuration over time. This would bring stability to the attention of owners, operators and Coast Guard officials in a more direct and frequent manner.

NIOSH ranks commercial fishing as one of the most hazardous occupations in the U.S., with a fatality rate 29 times higher than the national average. In 2020, a year we all want to forget, there were seven commercial fishing-related fatalities with a Maine nexus. To truly honor the lives of Joe Nickerson, Christopher Pinkham, the Emmy Rose crew and the many other fishermen lost in tragic accidents, there must be a willingness among the fishing community, state and federal lawmakers and federal regulators to work together to develop solutions that save lives.


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