It was almost exactly a year ago that a scalloper out of New Bedford sank, taking the lives of three men onboard and adding to the long roll call of people who die each year to put flounder, scallops and haddock on the table.
Tragically, that toll continued to go up this week with word the Emmy Rose, a Portland-based fishing boat, sank in high winds and rough seas off the coast of Provincetown. Although the U.S. Coast Guard was continuing to search for the four crew members, the empty life raft and debris found Monday morning near the last-known location of the vessel left little reason for hope.
Fishing has always been a dangerous industry. Even with improvements in technology, emergency location devices, life rafts and survival suits, the quest for seafood has pushed fishermen and some women farther out to sea in often treacherous and unpredictable weather. The Emmy Rose disappeared at a time when the wind was gusting to 30 mph or more, and seas were reportedly 6 to 8 feet – conditions severe enough to force a USCG rescue helicopter to return to base.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health regularly documents the dangers of working conditions in many industries. Working on a commercial fishing boat means working in a hazardous environment. It's strenuous work with long hours and in all kinds of weather — often on a slippery, rolling work surface with heavy equipment and many moving parts.
NIOSH compiled data for the period from 2000 to 2015 and found an annual average of 42 deaths in the commercial fishing industry across the U.S. (117 deaths per 100,000 workers) compared with an average of 5,247 deaths (4 per 100,000) among all U.S. workers.
Commercial fishing employs about 115,000 seafood harvesters (draggers, scallopers and various kinds of shellfish harvesting) and in 2015, brought in more than $5 billion worth of seafood.
But it's not the economic bounty we think about in a week like this. It's the hazards, injuries and deaths that we're reminded of when we hear of another boat sinking. NIOSH data for 2000 to 2015 found that 725 commercial fishermen died while fishing in the U.S. and that nearly half occurred after a vessel disaster. A vessel disaster could be a sinking, capsizing, grounding, fire or explosion, or any event that forces crews to abandon ship.
Some 30% (221) of fatalities occurred when a fisherman fell overboard or was pulled overboard by lines or gear – many of them while working alone on a boat; an additional 12% (87) of deaths resulted from an injury onboard.
The fishing communities of Gloucester, New Bedford and Portland, Maine, know the toll fishing has taken over the years. And ports with smaller fleets, including Newburyport, Seabrook, Marblehead and Salem, know the price that's been paid as well. The waterfront Gloucester Fisherman's Memorial tablets list thousands of names of those who have died at sea over the centuries.
In New Bedford, the walls of the venerable Seamen’s Bethel hold marble plaques bearing witness to whalers lost in the 19th century and fishing boats in more recent times.
And the small memorial next to the Newburyport harbormaster's building pays homage to the three men aboard the Heather Lynne II in 1996, and the two aboard Lady Luck in 2007 who died at sea. When that memorial was rededicated not too many years ago, a bell was struck five times – once for each man aboard those two vessels who died. The bell was struck a sixth time to honor all the Newburyport fishermen through the ages who have died at sea.
In this Thanksgiving week, it's worth thinking about the price that's sometimes paid to put fresh fish at the fish market or supermarket, and even the frozen shrimp and king crab legs shrink-wrapped in the freezer display. They all carry a price beyond what rings up at the checkout line. Sometimes, that price is paid with lives lost at sea, and we shouldn't forget that.