Skiff Safety: Small Boat, Big Risks

Updated: May 13


It can happen in an instant. The weather’s turned rough and the waves are starting to get large, but there’s just a bit more to be done before you can head back for the day. Besides, you’re close to shore — what’s the worst that could happen? But then there’s a large wave, a sudden rock of the boat. When you’re in a skiff, swampings and capsizings can happen so fast that you’re in the water before you even know what’s happened.

As we head into summer, we’d like to take a quick moment to look at skiff safety. We often hear about larger vessel disasters, but did you know two-thirds of vessel disaster deaths in Alaska during 2010–2014 were actually victims working in skiffs? In fact, the Alaska salmon set net fleet had the highest number of fatalities (7) of any fleet in the state during that time period.1 Most of these deaths were due to skiff swampings and capsizings, but some occurred when a crewman fell overboard. During this same time period, five clammers transiting in a skiff perished in a single vessel disaster.1 This problem isn’t unique to Alaska, either. The West Coast tribal salmon set net fleet working on the Columbia River experienced four fatalities during 2010-2014.1 We want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to come home alive and well, so here are a few simple steps you can take to make your time in a skiff safer.

The first and most important step is to wear your life jacket, also known as a Personal Floatation Device (PFD), at all times. Since skiff accidents can happen quickly, there’s usually no time to put one on after the fact. In 2010, the crew of the F/V Paul Revere were checking their nets in Bristol Bay when a large wave capsized their skiff. Thanks to the life vests the crew wore as a standard part of their gear, they were able to survive two hours in cold water as they gripped nets and slowly worked their way back to shore (check out their story at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuFo6lIqTNM). Contrary to popular belief, it’s not hypothermia that usually causes drownings. Instead, it’s a condition called swimming failure: the loss of muscle coordination to keep swimming. This can happen long before hypothermia, and it’s also why PFDs are so important. PFDs allow you time to float and focus on how to get out of the water. PFDs also give you more time to be rescued – even in cold water.

Some fishermen may think PFDs get in the way of working, or that they might get snagged or entangled in gear, but there are PFDs which could work well in skiffs. A NIOSH study found that fishermen who tried out some of the newly-designed PFDs described them as “lightweight,” “did not interfere with their work,” “did not snag on fishing gear,” and “easy to clean and put on.”3 More and more PFDs are coming on the market with commercial fishermen in mind. However, the best PFD is the one you’ll wear every day. Take the time now to find a PFD that fits you and your gear type before the start of the season. To see what fishermen like you had to say about the comfort and wearability of PFDs, go to our website: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fishing. (Reminder: if your skiff fleet has an immersion suit exemption letter from the US Coast Guard, your PFD must be Coast Guard-approved. Contact the District 17 Fishing Vessel Safety Program at 907-463-2810 if you have any questions)

Here are a few more ways you can prepare your skiff and crew:

  • Avoid fishing and transiting in heavy weather:

  • Listen to weather forecasts and heed all warnings.

  • Stay in if waves are expected to be too large to operate your skiff safely.

  • If bad weather strikes unexpectedly, seek shelter immediately.

  • Have a way to call for help:

  • Pack your skiff with communication equipment like a waterproof VHF radio.

  • Inspect and maintain your survival gear.

  • Take a marine safety course and refresher every five years.

Want to know more? Visit our website at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fishing/. June 9th and 10th – We’ll be in Naknek, Alaska for the Bristol Bay Fish Expo. We’ll be available to talk all things safety, and we want to hear from you about how you keep yourself and your crew safe!

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1 Lucas, D. and Case, S. (2018). Work-related mortality in the US fishing industry during 2000-2014: New findings based on improved workforce exposure estimates. Am J Ind Med. 61(1), 21–31.

2 Lucas, D., Lincoln, J., Somervell, P., Teske, T. (2012). Worker satisfaction with personal flotation devices (PFDs) in the fishing industry: Evaluations in actual use. Appl Ergon, 43, 747–752.


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