To anyone who has ever been on a commercial fishing vessel it will come as no surprise that commercial fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 2019 the commercial fishing industry had a fatality rate that was nearly 40 times higher than the national average. Commercial fishermen are exposed to heavy weather and work with hazardous machinery; coupled with long working hours and strenuous labor, this is a recipe for disaster.
Unfortunately, the commercial fishing industry’s fatality rate is not a new phenomenon. Historically commercial fishing has had such a high fatality rate that in 1991 NIOSH developed the Commercial Fishing Incident Database (CFID) to track work-related fatalities in the industry. CFID data shows that in the past ten years fatalities to scallopers (18%) and lobstermen (13%) make up nearly a third of all fatalities on the East Coast. Data further shows that the greatest dangers to fishermen are vessel disasters, falls overboard, and machinery on deck.
Half of all fatalities in the fishing industry are due to vessel disasters (vessel sinkings). While inclement weather is reported to have been present for half of these sinkings the data shows that by far the most common causes of vessel sinkings are flooding and instability in the vessel. This suggests that in events involving vessel disasters, these commercial fishing vessels lacked modern hatch monitoring systems, slack-tank sensors and/or preventative maintenance programs.
Moreover, thirty percent of fatalities are caused by falls overboard. In many cases these falls overboard were unwitnessed as the person was working alone on deck. What is more troubling is that over the past ten years in every case of a fatality caused by a person going over the rail the victim did not have a functional personal floatation device (PFD). In addition, while out on deck fishermen rarely are provided with a personal location beacon. This all suggests that these deaths are preventable.
What is scarier to think about is that in such a hazardous industry where fatalities are statistically common there is no database which tracks injuries to commercial fishermen. With exposure to heavy seas, heavy machinery out on deck and while working in close proximity to high tension lines and cables injuries are not uncommon. Common commercial fishing injuries include:
Slips, trips and falls
However, most injuries are preventable and can be avoided through the use of proper equipment, proper training and adherence to work/rest schedules.
Those injured aboard commercial fishing vessels may be entitled to damages under the Jones Act if their injury was caused by the negligence of their employer. In addition, vessel owners and operators owe a duty to commercial fishermen to provide a seaworthy vessel. When this duty is breached and the breach is the proximate cause of a seaman’s injury, the seaman is entitled to recover monetary damages.
The Atlantic Seaboard accounts for 14% of all commercial fishing landings in the U.S. and 40% of the total value of harvested catch.
U.S Domestic Fishing by Region and State - 2020
Quantity (MM lbs) Value (MM $)
New England: Maine
Prominent Fishing Ports on the East Coast of the United States - 2020
Quantity (MM lbs) Value (MM $)
New Bedford, MA
Point Judith, RI
Point Pleasant, NJ
Cape May, NJ
Hampton Roads, VA
*National Marine Fisheries Service (2022). Fisheries of the United States, 2020. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Current Fishery Statistics No. 2020.
If you or a loved one are a commercial fisherman and were injured or have fallen ill while at work you should call an experienced maritime injury attorney at Leeward Law for a free consultation. You may be entitled to compensation and/or damages under the Jones Act and general Maritime Law.