top of page

Handling Fishing Gear

Handling fishing gear safely has a major impact on the safety of your  vessel and your crew.

Anchor 1

Handling Fishing Gear

Adapted from, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, 7th Edition, Jerry Dzugan and Susan Clark Jensen, 2018

He was new to crabbing and he made a bad mistake. Maybe it was caused by lack of sleep or not having eaten much all day. Whatever the cause, the break in attention was long enough for his left
foot to catch in the coil of line as the pot went overboard, taking him to the bottom.

Seasoned fishermen know how dangerous their world is, but a green crewmember or someone who’s moving into a different fishery may not recognize the new hazards. Understanding and staying alert to dangers can help a fisherman keep his fingers, his gear, and his life.

Fishermen of all ages suffer a high incidence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). In a study on North Carolina fishermen, 39 percent had an injury in a 12 month period and 50 percent of those injuries were MSDs.   For Alaska, data from the Alaska Department of Labor Fishermen’s Fund show that about 40 percent of claims are due to  musculoskeletal problems.

General Points for All Fisheries
  • Learn the ropes from experienced crewmembers, on your own boat and on other boats.

  • Stand clear of working lines. Getting tangled up can give you a quick trip overboard or a ride to the hospital with a broken leg or mangled foot.

  • Take time to clean the slime and fish waste off the deck.

  • Stay out of the line of pull of cables.

  • Keep a sharp knife handy to cut the web, line, or groundline in an emergency. This way, if you are snagged or caught as the gear is laid out, you will have a chance to cut yourself free before
    you go overboard.

  • Wear a personal flotation device (PFD) and nonskid boots while working on deck.

  • Assume that decks will be slippery and move accordingly.

  • Remember that drug and alcohol use, monotonous and repetitive work, and fatigue increase your risk of having an accident.

  • Keep your mind on your work and try to anticipate what will happen next. It’s easy to get hurt quickly.

  • Watch out for the poisonous spike on the dorsal fin of ratfish and spiny dogfish. If you do get stuck, treat the wound immediately.

  • Avoid sliding your hands along cables. Broken wires in the cables can tear away gloves and flesh.

Stay out of the danger area when working around winches.

Stay out of the danger area when working around winches.

Keep a knife handy when working on deck.

Keep a knife handy when working on deck.

  • Don’t stand or walk under suspended loads or pass a suspended load over someone.

  • Protect yourself from jellyfish stings by wearing raingear, gloves, a hat, and goggles or glasses, and by washing your hands before you touch your skin. Some fishermen smear petroleum jelly on their faces to keep from being stung.

  • Mark hazardous areas.

  • Install emergency shutoff switches.

  • Ensure crew are visible and can communicate with each other.

  • Put physical barriers between equipment and people when possible.

Watchout for Fish Spines!

Watch out for fish spines!

  • Sprains and strains, especially of the back, continue to be the most common injury among fishermen for all gear types. Most of these injuries can be prevented by using proper lifting and moving techniques. The four most important ways to save your back are:

    • Use your brain first, and get help if you need it.

    • Before you pick up anything, get as close to it as possible, approach it squarely, and bend your legs.

    • When you stand up, keep your back as straight and square to the object as possible and let your legs do the work. One of the best ways to hurt yourself is to be twisted and bent at the spine when picking things up.

    • If you do a lot of forward bending, occasionally stop and lean backwards to stretch those muscles.

  • Cuts, scrapes, and punctures are also a leading cause of injury to fishermen. Many of these could be prevented by wearing gloves and watching body placement. Longliners and trollers are more apt than other fishermen to have these injuries become infected, and most infections can be prevented by good hygiene.

  • Bruises continue to be a common injury for seiners, gillnetters, and trawlers. Be aware of your body placement and stay out of the way of full nets to help prevent this sometimes crushing problem.

  • Make sure pots are properly secured to the pot launchers.

  • Take care when lifting pots out of the water or when moving them about, especially in rough seas. Swinging pots can kill people, so stand clear of them. Drop swinging pots to the deck or let them hit the outside of the bulwarks.

  • Unload pots only on deck.

  • When underway, secure pots to prevent them from shifting by tying each pot to other pots in at least two or three places.

  • Know your vessel’s stability limits. All boats should have a stability report on board that describes safe loading for given conditions and the proper loading pattern. You are always more stable with less weight above the waterline than with more.

  • Some life jackets, if worn, protect your rib cage from crab pots and keep you afloat if you go overboard.

Bering Sea Crab Fishermen

Bering Sea Crab Fishermen

  • When setting nets, watch for backlashes from the usually freewheeling reel.

  • Connect the power net reel’s clutch control to a foot pedal that must be stepped on to operate the reel. Then, if someone is caught in the net, the reel will stop as he is lifted off his feet.

  • Gillnets snag easily, so watch what you wear and avoid exposed buttons, buckles, or boot tabs.

  • Stay off the rocks by using a fathometer with an alarm when you’re drift net fishing.

Gillnetting for Salmon on Bristol Bay

Gillnetting for Salmon on Bristol Bay

  • Stay clear of flying hooks.

  • When you’re clearing gangions, wear wristers and raingear for protection against spinning hooks.

  • Broken hooks can fly at you when you’re working the roller, and spinning hooks can hit your face and cost you an eye. Wear goggles or a face shield to protect your eyes.

  • Never grab the running gear outside the roller. If you must work the gear, stop the hydraulics first. Muscles tear and arms break when haulers grab line or gear outside the roller while pulling or setting gear.

  • Big, flopping halibut on deck can be a serious hazard. Watch their tails, and stun and bleed them as quickly as possible.


Halibut Longlining

  • Keep your feet clear when the net’s going overboard to make sure you don’t go over with it.

  • Rolling a big load of fish aboard or pulling a seine off a snag can easily cause a boat to roll over. Don’t be greedy or impatient.

  • Be very careful with your hands, feet, and clothing around the deck winch. You can be wrapped up and seriously injured in a flash and have no chance of stopping the winch yourself.

  • Install an emergency shutoff switch on the capstan.

  • Seine rings, fish, or debris falling over the power block can knock you out and split your skull. So can a falling block. Wear a hard hat and be aware of where you are standing.

  • Don’t let your clothing or body, especially arms and legs, get fouled in the net as gear goes through the block, or you’ll get an unwanted ride.

  • Don’t wear exposed buttons, buckles, or other fixtures that can hang up on the web.

  • Protect skin from jellyfish.

Seining for Salmon in Prince William Sound

Seining for salmon in Prince William Sound.

  • Stand outside the pull of the cable leading from the block at the railing into the winch drum. If the cable breaks, its whipping end might hit you—and divide you in half.

  • Don’t try to lead a cable onto the winch drum with your hands or feet. If the winch is not equipped with a proper level wind, use an iron rod or length of pipe to guide the cable onto the drum. Then, be sure to have good, solid footing, because a fall across the cable could cause you to be carried into the winch.

  • Install an emergency stop switch on any winch with a risk of entanglement.

  • Take care not to lay too many turns on the gypsy head, especially if the head is short. An extra turn may cause overlap, particularly if the lead from boom point to winch is less than perfect. If the line shows the smallest tendency to overlap, remove a turn from the gypsy head.

  • Wear a hard hat or safety helmet when on deck.

  • When the net is being towed, don’t sit or lean on the trawl cables.

  • Stay alert when trawl doors are coming aboard, opening, or moving. Don’t get crushed between the door and vessel.

  • Use a lifeline whenever you enter the stern ramp or walk the codend.

  • Keep clear of the codend if you split the catch on deck. You could be badly injured if it hits you as it’s rolling or swinging.

  • Don’t step on the tackle as it comes down on deck from the gypsy head. Throw the tackle line away from and clear of your feet.

  • Following seas and a stern ramp can mean a dangerous deck, so keep the safety gate closed whenever possible.

Working on a Stern Trawler

Working on a Stern Trawler

  • Have a nonskid surface on the floor of the cockpit.

  • Make sure there is a suitable breaking strap on the leads to prevent them from hanging up on the bottom.

  • When putting the gear out, make sure the lure is tossed over before snapping on the spread.

  • Keep a pair of wire cutters of sufficient size in the trolling cockpit so you can snip your gear loose if it gets hung up. Otherwise, the seas and current might cause you to capsize.

  • Secure the handle of the gurdy brake when stopping to work with the gear. Never try to stop the line with your hands or take snaps off when the gurdy is still running. Fishermen lose fingers due to this carelessness.

  • When there’s a big fish on the spread, unsnap it from the wire to a kill-line or line on the boat before hauling it in.

  • When placing leads in their holders, beware of them swinging about and watch your fingers.

  • Rig a method to get back on board, such as a floating, trailing line tied up high, in case you fall overboard.

  • Drag a line with a float behind boat to pull yourself back on board if you are fishing by yourself.

A Troller Commercial Salmon Fishing in Southeast Alaska

A Troller Commercial Salmon Fishing in Southeast Alaska

All Vessels
  • Install preventer cable on boom.

  • Install shutoff switch on capstan.

  • Install deadman brake on drum.

Think Ahead!

Advanced medical care is tough to get at sea. Get some first aid training and think about what you are doing. Practicing common sense can prevent costly delays, injuries, and loss of life—and can keep you fishing.

Anchor 2
Anchor 3
bottom of page