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How dangerous is commercial fishing? Feds say more data is needed

It’s common knowledge that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Hard labor, long days and unpredictable weather frequently lead to injuries and fatalities, with the Coast Guard investigating hundreds of accidents each year.

While everyone agrees that the injury and fatality rate is high in the industry, it is actually difficult to say exactly how high, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The problem, the GAO found, is that there is no reliable source of data on the total number of active commercial fishing vessels in U.S. waters – that is, how many fishing vessels are actively operating, catching and selling fish and other catch.

Without these data, it can be hard to know the answers to questions such as:

  • How likely is a commercial fisherman to be injured or killed?
  • Does the fishing location affect injury and fatality rates?
  • Does the size of a vessel affect injury and fatality rates?
  • Does the type of fishery affect injury and fatality rates?

The purpose of the GAO’s report was to analyze the costs and benefits of laws requiring vessels of certain lengths and ages to be built and maintained to certain standards (known as “classing” vessels) as well as “alternative-to-class” standards introduced in 2016. The general goal of both types of standards is to increase vessel safety.

But assessing the costs and benefits of these standards is difficult to do without reliable data, the GAO concluded. The report recommends that the Coast Guard, National Institute for Occupational Safety and the National Marine Fisheries Service form a working group to figure out how to better collect data on information including:

  • the number of active commercial fishing vessels
  • the fishery in which each active vessel operates
  • vessel age, length and other characteristics

Beyond informing regulatory decisions, better data would help inform commercial fishermen about safety trends in specific fisheries and the industry as a whole. Are injury rates going up or down in the commercial fishing industry? Is one fishery safer than another? Regulators aren’t the only ones who would be interested in the answers.

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