With 14 deaths, last year was one of the worst since the mid-1990s for Northeast fishing.

BOSTON (AP) – Last year was a dangerous one for local fishermen, with the most deaths at sea since the mid-1990s in a sober reminder of the inherent hazards of working on water.

Of the 14 deaths in the New England-New York area, five were lobstermen, including at least four who were dragged overboard or died after getting entangled in trawl lines while working alone. Seven other men were killed in two separate scallop boat accidents, one of unknown cause, the other when the boat capsized. Two others were killed when two fishing trawlers collided off Nantucket.

The number of deaths was considerably higher than the previous year, when just one person was killed. But there was a similarly high number, 13, in 2000 and at least 10 fishermen have died at sea in seven of the last 11 years, including 15 in 1994 and 20 in 1993.

Ted Harrington, fishing vessel safety coordinator for the U.S. Coast Guard called last year “worse than normal.” None of the deaths occurred during a major storm, while preventable mistakes were factors in many cases, he said.

More regulation to ensure better safety is one solution, but it would likely have a minor effect compared to the burden of requiring new equipment or procedures, Harrington said. More important, he said is “awareness, it’s being truly concerned for safety.”

The Coast Guard offers free dockside safety checks to any boat owner who wants it, and Harrington said there’s decent participation in larger ports, such as New Bedford and Gloucester. But overall participation isn’t strong, he said.

“Especially the smaller, independent guys don’t take advantage of it,” he said. “It’s strictly, entirely for the benefit of the fishermen, but it’s hard to get that across.”

Four lobstermen were killed at sea between March and July and a Maine lobsterman was pulled overboard in October. Bill Adler, head of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said a typical lobster boat uses hundreds of feet of rope per trawl. The danger comes when the traps are being set – a lobsterman’s foot can get caught as the rope unwinds off the deck.

Many lobstermen carry a knife so they can slash the line if it pulls them under, Adler said. Other boats are rigged so the captain can kill the engine if he’s being dragged over.

Having another man on board increases safety, but Adler said some fishermen, particularly older guys, are reluctant to hire the help both because of the financial hit, and because they prefer solitude. Adler, for instance, always fishes alone.

“I prefer to go out and not have to be talking to somebody because I’m thinking about fishing,” he said.

The two deadliest accidents this year involved scallop boats. In October, four Maine scallopers fishing out of Cape Cod in the Candy B II disappeared nearly without a trace. The boat’s emergency beacon was found floating in a debris field.

In December, three men were killed when the Atlanta capsized off Cape Cod. A crew member said the boat was top-heavy and some survivors have threatened suit, claiming safety violations, including faulty flares.

Former New Bedford scalloper Jim Kendall said overall safety has improved over the years with better weather forecasts and more solidly built boats. But he said various regulations have eaten away at safety.

For instance, a 1994 mandate that aimed to reduce fishing effort by reducing scallop crew sizes to a maximum of seven means fewer eyes on board to spot trouble or help out in a crisis. Kendall, who is now an industry consultant, added that cuts in fishing days force fishermen to fish longer in places or weather they shouldn’t because they don’t want to waste the limited time they have, once they’re at sea.

Mike Marchetti, head of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association, said people shouldn’t forget the risks fishermen take daily, but added that vigilance must be a habit of everyone in the industry.

“That’s the nature of fishing, you’re responsible for yourself,” he said. “You’re on that ocean, that ocean don’t care. You want to live, you pay attention.”

AP-ES-01-10-04 1331EST



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