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You’re Ready to Fish, So Where is Your PFD?

You have finished your boat and gear work. The boat is fueled and iced. You have groceries and crew aboard and you are ready to slip the lines and head to work. Right?

Take a look. Are your crew wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) on deck? Increasingly, commercial fishing captains are requiring their crew to wear PFDs on deck and for good reason: PFDs save lives.

Consider an incident from January 2018. Two commercial fishermen aboard the trawler, F/V Arctic Wind, were swept overboard by a wave in the Bering Sea. Both men were wearing PFDs and both were recovered alive within fifteen minutes.

“Well,” you might say, “I don’t fish in the Bering Sea in January or conditions nearly that severe.” In that case, you may be interested to know that nationally, 79% of all commercial fishing fatalities are the result of falls overboard and vessel disasters resulting in the crew abandoning ship. In either case, wearing a PFD will significantly improve your chances of survival.

Wearing a PFD whenever you are on deck will ensure that you are prepared in case of an emergency. When disaster strikes, events frequently move rapidly and you may not get the opportunity to break out your PFDs from a locker. If you or one of your crew fall overboard, a PFD stowed in a locker will be of no help at all.

“Yeah, but I hate wearing a PFD and so do my crew. They’re uncomfortable and they snag on gear.” Maybe, you just haven’t found the right PFD. PFDs are manufactured in a wide variety styles and types. Depending on your fishery and location, you may prefer a Type-III work vest, an inflatable vest, or oilskins with built-in flotation. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) asked 200 fishermen from different fisheries to try one of six different PFDs for a month. Each group found PFDs that worked in their fishery.

If you read the NIOSH study, you may notice that the flotation oilskins evaluated, were not U.S. Coast Guard-approved. While a non-approved PFD will not help you to meet the Coast Guard’s carriage requirements, an approved PFD stowed in a locker will not help if you fall overboard. The best PFD is the one you will wear, whenever you are on deck.

“OK, I’m convinced, but my crew will never go along with it.” Then, let them know what a PFD will do for them. 

  • If they fall overboard and they are wearing a PFD, rather than merely keeping their heads above water, they can focus on other aspects of survival, like attracting the attention of their shipmates.

  • If they are injured or unconscious, a PFD will keep their airways clear when they can't help themselves.

  • In cold water, a PFD will keep them afloat when they're too cold to swim.

  • A PFD will give them more time to be rescued.

Of the 182 fishermen who died from falls overboard between 2000 and 2011 none of them were wearing a PFD. In the end, it’s your boat and you get to set the rules. Or to quote Angus Iverson, “America may be a democracy, but your boat sure isn't!”


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