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AMSEA Conducts Marine Safety Research with Unalakleet Setnet Fleet

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Open skiffs used by commercial setnet salmon fishermen in Unalakleet, Alaska
Setnet Skiffs in Unalakleet, Alaska

This past summer, AMSEA researcher Leann Fay, Ph.D. traveled north to Unalakleet, an Alaska Native salmon fishing community, to interview 10 commercial setnet fishermen in Norton Sound. Commercial fishing fatalities are 29 times higher than all other US industries, and Alaska's salmon setnet fishery had the highest fatality numbers out of the state's commercial fisheries from 2010-2014. Ten out of fifteen Alaskan fatalities from commercial fishing vessel disasters occurred in open skiffs, the kinds of boats used in the setnet fishery. AMSEA is actively researching the salmon setnet fishery in Alaska to determine why fatalities are increasing and what can be done about it.

With help of local fishermen, the Native Village of Unalakleet, and local research assistant, Melanie ‘Mayugiaq’ Sagoonick, Leann conducted semi-structured interviews to understand factors that influence safety. She designed questions to learn about fishing practices and see where additional commercial fishing training, education, and resources may be used to reduce fatalities in Norton Sound. Interviews contained stories on how people learned to fish, crew dynamics, boats, equipment, preparation, training, weather, experiences that felt unsafe, challenges, lessons, stories, or knowledge people wanted to share.

After analyzing the interview data, a couple of factors became apparent. One of the big issues with Personnel Floatation Devices was that easily accessible and affordable PFDs are bulky, too hot to work in comfortably, and can become an entanglement hazard with straps and buckles that catch on the nets. Many set gillnetters choose not to wear their PFDs or have to take them off due to these discomforts and hazards. Unfortunately, access to alternative PFDs is challenging. Emergency equipment such as CO2 cartridges in inflatable PFDs cannot be easily or affordably shipped to remote fishing villages in Norton Sound.

The second factor is the need for additional safety knowledge. Commercial fishing vessel training offered in larger communities is designed for larger boats with different equipment and does not reflect the unique needs for open boat fishing. Alaska Native commercial fishermen have their traditional safety knowledge that has been relied upon for generations. While researching safety education in the setnet fishery, observing, learning from, and collaborating with local fishermen is imperative to the end goal of reducing marine fatalities in the fishery.

Kent inflatable PFDs being distributed to setnet fishermen
Kent Inflatable PFD

Thanks to this research, AMSEA in collaboration with local fishermen, created and is distributing a boating checklist that includes double-checking the weather, communicating a float plan with someone, and having a communication device onboard to name a few, along with a waterproof bag to keep cellphones dry. Inflatable PFDs which are lightweight, less likely to hang up on nets, and more comfortable, will be distributed to 30 trainees.

AMSEA is working on assembling a curriculum with Alaska

Native fishermen to build upon shared knowledge and safety practices as well as provide relevant resources to offer people the best odds of survival at sea. AMSEA plans to use the knowledge shared by these fishermen to improve awareness, promote solutions, and develop tailored training programs for this fishery.

This research project was funded by PNASH and was researched by AMSEA with the help of our partners, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and USCG.

For more information, watch Leann and Melanie's presentation at the American Indian/Alaska Native Injury and Violence Prevention conference on July 27, 2022, or read PNASH's one-page report below.

AKNativeGillnetters_YearEnd PNASH Report
Download DOCX • 16.23MB


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