Captain Bob Jacobson
Solicited Expert Accounting for West Coast Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Assessment February 1990
Let me preface my remarks by stating that my hook-and-line longlining experience has been limited to two species— sablefish (black cod) and halibut. Most of my fishing ventures for those two species have taken place in the Bering Sea or Gulf of Alaska on an 84-foot vessel. While the following remarks are about my experience in Alaska, they directly relate to safety issues experienced by longline fishermen for those two species off Oregon, Washington, and California, since the gear and methods are very similar.
First let's talk about gear. It is comparable for both species. Baited hooks are attached to a nylon or poly groundline that is “set” over the stern of the vessel. Hook spacing intervals may range from 3 feet for black cod to as much as 30+ feet for halibut in certain areas. The groundline is anchored on the ocean bottom at each end, and also buoyed on the surface. Individual sets may range in length from under a mile to 4-5 miles.
I'll now attempt to outline the safety-related issues by fishery.
Management of the halibut fishery has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. A tremendous increase in both the number of vessels operating in this fishery, and the efficiency of those vessels, has forced the management authority, the International Pacific Halibut Commission, to drastically reduce the length of the fishing season. It wasn't too many years ago when commercial halibut fishermen in area 3A (Gulf of Alaska) had well over 100 days a year fishing time. By 1989, the length of that season had been reduced to 4 days
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FISHING VESSEL SAFETY: Blueprint for a National Program APPENDIX H Safety Considerations on a Longline Vessel Captain Bob Jacobson Solicited Expert Accounting for West Coast Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Assessment February 1990 Let me preface my remarks by stating that my hook-and-line longlining experience has been limited to two species— sablefish (black cod) and halibut. Most of my fishing ventures for those two species have taken place in the Bering Sea or Gulf of Alaska on an 84-foot vessel. While the following remarks are about my experience in Alaska, they directly relate to safety issues experienced by longline fishermen for those two species off Oregon, Washington, and California, since the gear and methods are very similar. First let's talk about gear. It is comparable for both species. Baited hooks are attached to a nylon or poly groundline that is “set” over the stern of the vessel. Hook spacing intervals may range from 3 feet for black cod to as much as 30+ feet for halibut in certain areas. The groundline is anchored on the ocean bottom at each end, and also buoyed on the surface. Individual sets may range in length from under a mile to 4-5 miles. I'll now attempt to outline the safety-related issues by fishery. HALIBUT Management of the halibut fishery has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. A tremendous increase in both the number of vessels operating in this fishery, and the efficiency of those vessels, has forced the management authority, the International Pacific Halibut Commission, to drastically reduce the length of the fishing season. It wasn't too many years ago when commercial halibut fishermen in area 3A (Gulf of Alaska) had well over 100 days a year fishing time. By 1989, the length of that season had been reduced to 4 days
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FISHING VESSEL SAFETY: Blueprint for a National Program (one 24-hour opening in each of the months of May, June, September, and October). This management change has obviously had an impact on the fishing strategies employed by industry members. The same season-shortening process has occurred in area 2A (Oregon, Washington, California), where fishing season length has been reduced from several weeks to several days. We employ a crew of seven (including the captain) for fishing halibut. It is likely that we will have at least one, and perhaps as many as three, new crewmen for each halibut opening. By this I mean that they are new to the boat, not necessarily new to the fishery. All crewmen are required to sign a crew employment form that we have developed. There is no standardized procedure in this industry for identifying available crewmen. Our first option is to hire an individual whom one of us knows personally to be experienced. If that fails we go to a list of names compiled from those who have shown the initiative to call or stop by the boat to look for a job. Remember that with the very short openings that now face this industry, there's not much time for OJT (on-the-job training). It follows that the more inexperienced crew we are forced to hire for an opening, the more inefficient, less productive, and potentially dangerous our fishing operation will be. I should indicate at this point that while there are dangers involved in any fishery, it is my opinion that the longline fisheries for halibut and sablefish pose fewer personal injury risks than do other fisheries in which I've been involved. In the 8 years I've participated in the longline fishery, we've never had a major accident. We have had a very few minor knife cuts and puncture wounds. We attempt to fish between 12,000 and 15,000 hooks during a 24-hour opening. The hooks are spaced at 9-foot intervals and are permanently attached to the groundline. This is commonly referred to as “stuck ” gear. The groundline with hooks attached are stored in plastic tubs, with each tub holding approximately 1,200 feet of groundline and 140 hooks. We have a little over 100 tubs of gear on the boat. Many vessels fish “snap-on” gear, where the hooks are not permanently attached to the groundline, but are snapped on with a safety-pin-type snap when the gear is set and snapped off when the gear is hauled aboard. Snap-on gear is used by a majority of the smaller vessels participating in the fishery, since it can be stored more compactly and therefore takes up less deck space. The crew cuts all the bait and baits all 15,000 hooks prior to the time the boat leaves port for a 24-hour opening. This activity poses no particular safety hazard other than the threat of cutting a finger with the knives used to cut the bait. We time our departure from port so that we arrive on the grounds several hours ahead of the season opening. When fishing in the Kodiak, Alaska, area, our run to the grounds may take from 8 to 40 hours, depending on the area fished. Prior to the departure we attempt to talk with all the new crew about safety equipment—where the survival suits are stored, how to pat them on, and how
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FISHING VESSEL SAFETY: Blueprint for a National Program to deploy the two inflatable rafts— and about their responsibilities as they relate to the overall fishing operation. Generally speaking, the area from the harbor to the open ocean poses a greater navigational risk than the open ocean itself. Congestion from increased numbers of vessels operating in a confined area, plus the need to navigate through buoys and reefs when leaving or entering port, contribute to this risk. Only the captain or alternate captain on our vessel is allowed to be on wheelwatch when we are leaving or entering port. On the run to or from the grounds, wheelwatches are shared among the experienced crew. We attempt to break in an inexperienced crewman gradually to this responsibility by making him accompany either the captain or alternate captain on one or several of his watches. During this indoctrination, we attempt to introduce the crewman to all of the navigational equipment, steering system, and vessel alarm system, including the watch alarm. Generally, after several indoctrination periods, we'll put the new man on watch during daylight hours, when others of the crew are awake, then on to nighttime watches when he (and we) feel comfortable that he's ready. We continually try to stress two issues: (1) that when he's on watch he's responsible for the safe passage of the crew and the vessel, and (2) that going to sleep on watch is grounds for dismissal after returning to port. The watch alarm is set and used by all those on wheelwatch. All crew are awakened at least 10 hours prior to the season opening. After eating, it's on to the back deck where final preparations are made. With only 24 hours to fish, there's no time for equipment breakdowns, poorly tied knots, or being anything less than fully prepared. There's also no room for injuries, and that's a point we continually stress to all the crewmen, but particularly to the new men— “Proceed with the responsibilities that we've discussed with you, but proceed cautiously until you've gained a better understanding of the processes and the dangers involved.” Setting the gear generally takes from 3 to 4 hours, the length of time depending on several variables. Experienced crew always do the setting. The baited gear in tubs is placed on a table near the stern of the boat where the end of the line in one tub is tied to the end of the line in the next tub until the lines in all tubs that we are going to use in that set are tied together. Tying the lines together is a job only for the experienced. One bad knot can ruin your day. Buoys and a flagstick are the first into the water. Flagsticks are generally made of either aluminum or calcutta and are long and bulky. Care must be taken when handling the flagsticks on board that another crewman standing nearby doesn't get hit, or poked in the eye. Attached to the flagstick/buoys is the buoyline. The length of the buoyline depends on the depth being fished. No particular safety problems to this point. Next overboard is the 35-60-pound anchor, followed by the groundline with the baited Books attached. When setting groundline with baited hooks permanently attached, a “setting chute ” is used. The tub from which the groundline is being
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FISHING VESSEL SAFETY: Blueprint for a National Program set is placed in a position under the chute so that the groundline and hooks leave the tub vertically, passing over the top of the chute and overboard. Once all the groundline and baited hooks from one tub are over the stern, that tub is quickly removed and the next tub is quickly slid into position. That process is repeated until all the tubs on that get are emptied. An anchor is attached, followed by the buoyline and flagstick. The gear setting can be dangerous. Hooks are leaving the tub at the rate of approximately one per second, or faster. A crewman hooked during this process may be dragged overboard, or at the minimum, sustain some hooking-induced injury. We have several sharp knives located in sheathes next to the setting chute for emergency use to cut someone free who might accidentally get hooked. We've never had to use them. I can recall, however, several occasions where the hooks from one tub tangled with the hooks from the next tub, creating a potentially dangerous situation where all hands were scrambling to stay clear of the flying hooks. My instructions to the crew are always to stand well clear when any tangles occur. Don't try to reach in to unsnarl it! During the setting process, the boat is proceeding full speed ahead with the captain in the wheelhouse. We've found it very useful to have an intercom system from the wheelhouse to the setting area on the back deck so that the captain can communicate directly with the crew when a problem arises. Snap-on gear is set differently. The groundline is generally stored on a large, hydraulically powered reel. After the buoy, flagstick, buoyline, and anchor are set, the crew manually snap each hook and gangion (leader) onto the groundline as it passes over the stern of the vessel. I have fished both snap-on and stuck gear, and would probably conclude that when setting the gear, there may be more risk of injury with the snap-on gear, since each snap and hook is handled individually. But that's really a judgment call. Once all of our sets are made and all of the gear is in the water, we return to the first set we made and begin the retrieval process, knowing that we've only got 19-20 hours to complete the task. The gear is retrieved over the starboard side of the vessel just aft of the wheelhouse. The flagstick is first aboard, followed by the buoys, buoyline, and anchor. A hydraulically powered line hauler mounted directly across the deck near the port rail is used to pull this gear, as well as the groundline that follows. The crew responsibilities during the retrieval process are as follows: one experienced man (generally the captain or alternate captain) gaffing the fish as they come aboard—he also runs the vessel using throttle and steering controls mounted next to his gaffing station (yes, that means that there is no one in the wheelhouse when we are running gear); one experienced man at the line hauler coiling the hooks and groundline into the empty tubs; one man unhooking the fish and putting them on the table for cleaning; and four men dressing fish (one man dressing fish is also responsible for carrying full tubs of gear from the hauler back to the gear storage area and carrying empty tubs back to the man operating the line hauler).
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FISHING VESSEL SAFETY: Blueprint for a National Program Halibut must be 32 inches in length to be legal and may weigh from 15 to 400 pounds. All fish are landed using gaff hooks. The person doing the gaffing (generally referred to as the “roller” man) assumes a major responsibility in our operation. Not only does he gaff all the fish, but he must also run the vessel in a safe and efficient manner, always being aware of other vessel traffic in the area. In addition, he's the one person in the crew who is most exposed to the weather and sea conditions. There have been times, when fishing in tough weather, that I've been completely submerged under a wall of water when a wave breaks over the side of the vessel. As the groundline is retrieved, each fish is gaffed in the head and lifted aboard. An innovation that a few vessels, including ours, now use is to cut away about a 3-foot-wide section of the 4-foot-high bulwarks so that the man doing the gaffing doesn't have to physically lift the big fish over the bulwarks onto the deck, but rather only has to lift them to deck level, where they slide through the opening in the bulwarks. While this means more water on deck (not a safety issue in this case), it also means considerably less physical strain on the roller man and certainly less chance for back or shoulder injuries. When a particularly large fish appears alongside the boat, it may take as many as four or five men, each wielding a gaff hook, to bring him aboard. This is certainly a potentially dangerous activity which could result in a severe puncture wound to one of the crew if a gaff hook slipped out of the fish. There's also a chance that someone might fall overboard during this endeavor, since it involves leaning over the bulwarks to get your gaff hook into a wildly thrashing, 200- to 300-pound fish. The groundline retrieval process continues until all hooks in that set are in the boat. The same process continues until all sets have been run and the season closes at the end of the 24-hour open fishing period. A couple of other potentially dangerous conditions may affect the safety of the roller man. There are times when the groundline snags on the ocean bottom and becomes extremely tight. If the groundline breaks at a point between the hauler and the roller man, it can snap back overboard, hooking the roller man on the way over. Or, if the line jumps out of the hauler under tight line conditions, it can snap back, hook the man at the roller, and either pull him overboard or inflict a hooking-related injury. As we do in the gear-setting area, we keep a couple of sharp knives handy, that the roller man might get to in case of an emergency. As I indicated earlier, we generally have three to four crewmen at the cleaning table at all times. Inexperienced crew are generally assigned to this task. Many have had no previous experience cleaning any kind of a fish, let alone a giant halibut. Just wrestling them up onto the cleaning table can be a multiperson, energy-draining, backbreaking task, particularly in rough weather. Experienced crew will provide instructions for the first couple of hours, then they are on their own, with instructions that it's better to take their time and be
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FISHING VESSEL SAFETY: Blueprint for a National Program safe than to have a knife-related accident that could immediately end the trip for all of as. I mentioned earlier that we cut out a section of our bulwarks to ease the strain on the roller man in getting the fish aboard. We also installed an inclined ramp that extends from the cut-out bulwarks upwards to the cleaning table so that after the hooked fish comes aboard, but before it's unhooked, it's pulled up the ramp and onto the cleaning table by the hydraulic line hauler. During times of heavy fishing the cleaning crew simply can't keep up, so the cleaning table becomes filled with fish waiting to be dressed, and uncleaned fish end up on the deck where they must be physically lifted onto the table. Removing the bulwarks and installing the ramp to get big fish on the table were positive steps from both a safety and efficiency point of view. As you're undoubtedly aware, halibut are a flat fish and are very slippery. While we use 4 × 24-inch deck checkers to keep the uncleaned fish on deck from sliding back and forth in rough weather, there have been occasions when our crew got so far behind cleaning that we were forced to temporarily halt our fishing operations and have all hands clean fish. Large amounts of halibut on deck, in rough weather, may create vessel stability problems, since water on deck does not clear properly through the scuppers as it should. Most smaller vessels send one or two crewmen into the fish hold to hand-ice fish after they are cleaned. Working in the cramped confinement of a fish hold with fish of this size is an arduous task, particularly in bad weather. On our vessel we are able to flood the fish holds. Just prior to leaving port we take 30-40 tons of ice and flood the hold, creating a slurry of ice and salt water. When the fish is cleaned, it's simply dropped through a hole in the cleaning table into the slush ice in the hold. In my opinion, this is certainly a safer and more efficient way of refrigerating the product. Care must be taken not to allow “slack” water in the tank when using this system. Potential stability problems may arise if that occurs. The crewman carrying tubs full of recently run gear from the line hauler back to the gear storage area has one of the most physically demanding jobs on the boat. He must maintain his balance while walking on a slippery wooden deck carrying a tub full of water-soaked groundline, hooks, and unused bait that may weigh up to 100 pounds. He may, at times, be walking over fish lying on the deck. While it's only 25-30 feet, he may make that trip 100 times in a 24-hour opening. Like most of the larger halibut boats, we Dave an aluminum “shelter deck” that covers about three-quarters of the back deck. As the name implies, the shelter deck provides shelter for the crew from weather and sea conditions, thereby making their jobs a little more comfortable and certainly safer, particularly when fishing in tough weather and sea conditions. I haven't said much about weather to this point. It is a factor for all vessels involved in this fishery, but becomes less of a consideration as vessel
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FISHING VESSEL SAFETY: Blueprint for a National Program size increases. Look at it this way— with only a limited number of preestablished days to fish, it's important that we optimize our production during those days. There 's no question that, at times, we fish in weather and sea conditions that we may not otherwise be fishing in if there was another alternative. I can recall on several occasions continuing to fish in 60-mph winds and 25-foot seas, which wasn't particularly comfortable, We confront such conditions by slowing down our operation in an attempt to minimize risk of injury to crew. Once the last fish is aboard we begin the return trip to port. All crew have now gone a minimum of 26 hours without sleep, with the exception of one experienced man who's been in the bunk for 2 or 3 hours. He'll get up and take the first wheelwatch. Any fish that haven't been cleaned are taken care of. The boat is cleaned up and fishing gear properly stowed. Fatigue has set in with all of us, but that's just a way of life in the fishing industry. The experienced crew will rotate wheelwatches, with the captain or alternate captain assuming that job prior to entering the congested harbor area. Once we arrive at the processing plant, we wait our turn to unload. Our crew does the unloading. There's always the potential here for having a brailer full of fish break on the way out of the fish hold and fall back into the hold on the unloaders. They are instructed, however, to stand well clear of the fish leaving the fish hold. Hopefully, we've got a good trip, but there are never any guarantees in this industry. SABLEFISH The sablefish longline fishery has not been as tightly regulated in recent years as has the halibut fishery. Season openings continue to be long enough in most areas that vessels fish repeated trips of several days' duration instead of the periodic 1-day trips common to the halibut fishery. While the gear and methods in this fishery are very comparable to halibut, there age differences in the operation that may have safety-related consequences. A brief discussion of each of those issues follows: Most of our sablefish trips are 6-7 days in length. As a result, there is more time for OJT for inexperienced crew. In my opinion that's an important factor in minimizing the chance of personal injuries to the inexperienced crew. They are not under the pressure, either perceived or real, to perform immediately as they are in the halibut fishery. In my opinion, the crew fatigue factor is greater in the sablefish fishery than for halibut. The crew averages 4-5 hours of sleep a night during the 6- or 7-day trip. The experienced crew has learned, over the years, to adjust to this rigorous schedule. Invariably, the inexperienced are accustomed to more sleep and, as a result, may have a difficult time adjusting. As we all know, accidents tend to happen more frequently after fatigue sets in.
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FISHING VESSEL SAFETY: Blueprint for a National Program Longer seasons mean that the need to fish under adverse weather and sea conditions is minimized. As a result, when the weather deteriorates while we're on a sablefish trip, we will cease fishing and either jog into the weather until it improves, or will run as much as 8-10 hours to get to a safe anchorage. When we're jogging in rough weather, an experienced man is always on the wheel. If we choose to anchor, once again the experienced crew assumes all the responsibilities of running the vessel and dropping the anchor. Sablefish are much smaller in size than halibut. Most of the fish are in the 4- to 6-pound category, with a few weighing as much as 15 pounds. The potential of lifting-related injuries occurring in this fishery is certainly less than in the halibut fishery. As mentioned earlier, the gear and methods are similar in the two fisheries. As in the halibut fishery, minor knife cuts, gaff hook, and hook punctures are the most common personal injuries that occur.