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Have economic and social effects on local communities changed?

Indicators: Fishing Vessel and Crew Safety

Key Findings

  • A total of 34 fatalities occurred in the groundfish fishery from 2000 through 2009, with at least one fatality occurring in 12 of the 14 years. A total of three fatalities occurred in the first three years of the Northeast Multispecies Sector Program, but five fatalities occurred in 2013. No clear pattern in fatalities in the groundfish fishery is seen either before or after implementation of the catch share program.
  • The program increased fishermen’s flexibility in choosing when and where to fish in exchange for joining a sector, thereby potentially improving vessel safety. Since 2013, however, safety concerns in the groundfish fishery have been driven largely by the lack of profitability of some fishing operations due to unprecedented cuts in the harvest limits of key stocks in the groundfish fishery.
  • It is difficult to separate catch share program effects from the effects of other factors that alter vessel and crew safety, such as on-going efforts by the Coast Guard to improve safety in the U.S. commercial fishing fleet.

Interactive Chart Story


This indicator measures the number of fatalities reported on fishing vessels.

In Their Own Words

Although some of the quantitative data analyzed for this indicator exhibited clear trends, it was challenging to discuss the relationships between observed data trends and implementation of the respective catch share programs. The Measuring the Effects of Catch Shares project team believed that those stakeholders most involved in the fishery, either as active participants or as representatives of an involved coalition of participants (e.g., sector managers in the Northeast), would be able to provide insight and help to explain trends seen in the existing quantitative data. The following quotes were selected to illustrate some of those perspectives and highlight trends such as effects on small vessels, the effect of avoiding “choke stocks,” fleet diversification, and product quality. The individual quotes do not represent findings or conclusions for this indicator, nor do they represent a consensus across any category of participants.

“With catch shares he can pick his days and go on nice days and you don’t have to push the weather. I find it very interesting today that we think of catch shares as being safer, but for some people the fishery is based around fishing in bad weather. Why that is, is because they capitalize on better prices. The badder the weather the less the boats go out, the less fish on the auction, the higher the price. I’m going to go. I think my boat can tolerate it. Days at sea and catch shares, it’s nothing really to do about safety.”
~ Fisherman

“Remember when the catch share program came in there was a lot of people professing that it’s going to make it safer. I don’t see that. Going with less crew, I don’t know how that’s safer. I know probably more guys on the smaller boats, they’ll go single handedly. That’s not very safe. The thinking was, well, you can plan better. You can avoid weather. That hasn’t come to fruition because the best time to land is when no one else is landing. So there are guys that are still taking that risk by going out in marginal weather .”
~ Industry Representative

“We drop into these weather windows. They’re usually five or six hours, seven hours between storms. Race out, fish for a few hours, try and catch something, and go home. You can’t do that anymore because you can’t keep the monitor sitting around because you’ve got to pay them. So you cancel before the monitor leaves to come here.”
~ Fisherman


Baseline: Before Catch Share Program

During the baseline period there were a number of regulatory factors that could potentially affect fishing vessel safety. One concern with the adoption of the differential days-at-sea (DAS) areas in 2007 under Framework 42 (Management Framework) was that fishermen could be encouraged to fish farther from shore than may be appropriate for their vessels, thereby reducing vessel safety. This was a particular concern for the Gulf of Maine differential DAS area, although there is no direct evidence the differential DAS areas led to an increase in vessel accidents. Also of concern was that the restrictions on DAS created incentives for vessels to fish in unsafe conditions to maximize revenues from their limited effort allocation. One example of increased risk-taking is that vessels may have stayed at sea if bad weather was predicted rather than using up their limited fishing time steaming back to port before completing a full trip. In addition, vessels may have tried to maximize their remaining DAS by fishing during the winter when prices are usually better. Winter weather is more extreme and less predictable, increasing dangers that fishermen may encounter.

Possible indirect negative safety impacts resulting from DAS reductions related to adaptations that fishing vessels make to compensate for reduced income, which can compromise their safety at sea. As income declines, for example, some fishermen may try to minimize their costs in order to stay viable by delaying routine vessel maintenance, postponing investments in optional safety equipment, and reducing or eliminating crew.

Due to multiple factors affecting fishing vessel safety during the baseline period, it is not possible to attribute the number or cause of fatalities in the groundfish fishery to any single factor. There were a total of 34 fatalities related to the groundfish fishery from 2000 through 2009, ranging from 8 in 2000 to zero in 2002 and 2003, for an average of 3.4 per year. The majority (26) were attributed to vessel disasters (e.g., capsizings and sinkings), and the others to falls overboard (1) and onboard injuries (7).

Fatalities occurred off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Fishermen on groundfish vessels with home ports in Maine accounted for around a third of the fatalities. In 2000 alone, five fishermen on Maine-based vessels died in three vessel disasters. In 2007, a disaster involving a vessel from New Bedford, Massachusetts claimed the lives of four fishermen.

During Catch Share Program

The Northeast Multispecies Sector Program increased fishermen’s flexibility in choosing when and where to fish in exchange for joining a sector, potentially resulting in less pressure to stay at sea when weather is unfavorable or fish beyond a safe distance from shore. Since 2013, however, safety concerns in the groundfish fishery have been driven largely by the lack of profitability of some fishing operations due to unprecedented cuts in the harvest limits of key stocks in the groundfish fishery. These cuts have led to a decline in the economic performance of vessels in all size categories (Financial Viability of the Fishery: Revenues). As noted above, a decrease in income may cause fishermen to operate their vessels in ways that could compromise safety. Further, many captains, especially of small boats, are taking fewer groundfish trips (Financial Viability of the Fishery: Landings). Consequently, they are finding it difficult to hire and keep experienced, dependable crew.

Due to the mix of factors affecting fishing vessel safety after the catch share program was implemented, it is not possible to attribute the number or cause of fatalities in the groundfish fishery to any one factor. Attributing changes in safety to the program is further complicated by concurrent events that might also account for any changes noted. In particular, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 and Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2012 made significant revisions to the safety and equipment requirements for U.S. commercial fishing vessels.

A total of eight fatalities occurred in the first four years of the Northeast Multispecies Sector Program. One fatality (a fall overboard) occurred in the groundfish fishery in 2010, and no fatalities were reported in 2011. In 2012, one fatality resulted from an onboard injury and one from a vessel disaster. In 2013, five fishermen died in four separate incidents, including two weather-related vessel disasters. Of the eight fatalities from 2010 to 2013, three occurred on vessels based in Massachusetts.

Information Sources

Holland, D. 2007. Community-based Sectors for the New England Groundfish Fishery. Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Portland, ME.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 2014. Personal communication.

New England Fishery Management Council. 2009. Final Amendment 16 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, Including an Environmental Impact Statement and Initial Regulatory Flexibility Analysis. Newburyport, MA.

Updated: July 2018

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