Traditional practices mixed with modern life jacket technology are seen to enhance fishing safety in Alaska
Even as safety has improved dramatically in Alaska’s fishing industry overall, harvesters working from small open boats still face risks.
Among those who continue to face deadly dangers are those who use nets in western Alaska’s Norton Sound region, a group of largely indigenous fishermen whose families have worked the waters for generations. Fixed nets, usually fixed to the sea or river bottom, trap fish in fixed locations.
Now, a pilot program studying the ways Indigenous knowledge addresses fishing safety in the Norton Sound community of Unalakleet has come up with some recommendations. These findings are reported in a recently published study authored by the two women who conducted the pilot project, Lynn Fay and Mayogiac Melanie Sajonik of the Sitka-based Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.
Fay said the high risks are almost inherent in this type of fishing because it is done in Unalakleet, where fishermen maneuver their small boats around fixed nets.
“The boat is much smaller, it is an open sailboat and can easily become submerged. Destabilization does not require a lot of time.
The research found that one direct solution to the problem is to provide better life jackets. Fay, who was recently appointed executive director of AMSEA, said the types commonly used are cheaper, bulky varieties and can be uncomfortable for active anglers, meaning they sometimes don’t wear them.
“They get hot. “They took it off,” she said. “When you do that, you’ll forget to wear it.”
She added that the main drawback of cheap life jackets is their buckles, which can get tangled in fishing gear.
In contrast, technologically advanced inflatable life jackets, although more expensive, are much easier to wear while doing the vigorous work involved in salmon fishing. They have systems to automatically inflate once submerged in water, with the option of manual inflation. The study’s funder, the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, ended up purchasing dozens of advanced life jackets and distributing 30 of them in Unalakleet and 20 in Shaktoolik, another Norton Sound Iñupiat community, she said.
The research found that the most complex problem faced by fishermen in Unalakleet and similar sites is the profound change in conditions caused by a warming climate.
The research found that traditional knowledge passed down through generations sometimes depends on conditions that no longer exist. However, this traditional practice can be applied even in a time when the water, fish streams and weather are no longer identical to what the elders knew, Fay said.
“Part of Indigenous knowledge was being super aware of your surroundings and paying attention and identifying patterns, even as those patterns changed,” she said.
As a follow-up to their work in Unalakleet, Fay and Sagunic are planning a broader program of safety research across Norton Sound, in Bristol Bay, and in Yakutat, scheduled to last three years.
In the Alaska fishing industry as a whole, the fatality rate has declined significantly since 1990, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH.
But from 2005 to 2014, those who caught salmon with fixed nets had the highest mortality rates in Alaska’s fishing industry, according to NIOSH. The fixed-net salmon fishery remained among Alaska’s deadliest fisheries through 2019, according to NIOSH. Fay said the statistics do not indicate the death toll among Alaska Native fishermen specifically, but fishing with nets fixed to open canoes is a common practice in Native villages.
As of 2022, there were 6,171 gillnet permit holders actively fishing in Alaska, according to research by Fay and Sagunic. Of those, 42 were in Unalakleet, a community of about 725 people. Because fixed-net permit holders typically fish using fishing boats, there are likely more than 80 people in Unalakleet involved in this harvest, the study said.
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