Between 2000 and 2010, 545 commercial fisherman died on the job in the U.S., according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Commercial fishing averaged 124 deaths per 100,000 workers over that time, compared with four deaths per 100,000 for all U.S. workers. The wintertime Dungeness crab fishery centered around the mouth of the Columbia River is among the most dangerous occupations in the U.S.

As part of a continuing effort to instill a culture of safety and reduce fatalities, the U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission and Englund Marine & Industrial Supply sponsor free drill conductor training to prepare fishermen, biologists and others for dangerous, real-life situations at sea.

The two-day training last week brought together five commercial fishermen, three Coast Guard vessel inspectors and one marine biologist, all trying to become certified drill conductors before going out to sea.

Commercial fishing vessel inspectors took them through the full spectrum of how to respond to and survive maritime emergencies. The class covered Coast Guard regulations, survival equipment, cold-water immersion, flotation, buoyancy, dewatering, signaling and injury prevention on the job.

At the end, all nine participants passed and became certified drill conductors, able to train other crew on whichever vessels they work.

More than half of all commercial fishing deaths in the 2000s occurred after a vessel disaster. Of disasters with known causes, nearly a third involved vessels flooding.

The Coast Guard estimates that just a 1-inch-diameter hole a foot below the water line will let in 20 gallons of water per minute. The flood rate can grow exponentially the larger the hole and the farther below the water line.

“The idea is if you have a leak in your boat, you want to slow it down,” Mike Rudolph, a civilian vessel inspector for the Coast Guard, said, standing atop a flood-control simulator at Astoria’s East End Mooring Basin rife with various holes.

When at sea, he said, boaters have to be creative in finding anything around them to slow down flooding, be it a tarp, pieces of wood, neoprene scraps from old immersion suits — even the SpongeBob SquarePants Nerf ball the crew of the fishing vessel Clam Juice from Gloucester, Massachusetts, stuck in an exhaust-pipe hole to keep their vessel from sinking as they were towed home.

Last week, trainees boarded a flood simulator and pounded wooden wedges, neoprene bits and whatever they could get their hands on to plug holes in pipes, the hull and the propeller shaft.

Trainees learned to operate a dewatering pump, and to shoot off flares and smoke signals when they need assistance.

Nearly a third of U.S. commercial fishing fatalities — 170 — happened after a fisherman fell overboard. More than half of those falls were not witnessed, and none of those who died were reported to be wearing a life jacket.

Trainees jumped in the mooring basin, learning how to retrieve fallen co-workers, board the inflatable life rafts most boats are required to carry and how to survive in the open ocean through group work.

“Over the years, we’ve gotten fishers to change their ideas,” Bill Hill, a commercial vessel inspector for the Coast Guard in Seattle, said, likening it to getting people to wear their seat belts in the ’80s. “We’re trying to make it second nature to these people.”

Ryan Walters, captain of the Mar-C fishing vessel moored in Ilwaco, said he canceled a tuna trip to bring himself and two of his crew for training. He already held regular drills on his vessel, but new rules are coming down the pike, whereby the skipper on a vessel needs to have certification as a drill conductor.

Bob Stephenson, a one-man salmon- and tuna-fishing operation from Lansing, Michigan, who came for the drill conductor course and first aid training, said the requirements are getting tougher for fishermen.

“That shouldn’t take away from what a good deal this is,” he said of the free training.

“All fishermen, myself included, resent government intrusion. And this is not government intrusion.”

As of Oct. 15, the free, voluntary vessel safety exams subsidized by the Coast Guard will become mandatory for any vessel operating more than 3 miles off the coast. Also in the offing, albeit without a timeline, is the requirement that at least one person aboard a fishing vessel must be a certified drill conductor to run the monthly emergency drills commercial fishing crews are required to go through.

Curt Farrell, who retired from the Coast Guard in 2010, coordinates the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Program. Farrell said he used to get a cold welcome from fishermen when he would offer a voluntary inspection. But when he offered free training, he said, fishermen became more welcoming.

“My goal is to bring more fishermen home safely, and this class is the biggest factor in making that happen,” he said.

The Alaska Marine Safety Education Association’s website,, lists upcoming classes, the next one in Astoria in November.

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