ELLSWORTH — Think of the Maine lobsterman and a few iconic images come to mind: a rugged boat with a wire trap on the rail; gloved hands holding a thrashing lobster and a gauge to measure whether it’s of legal size; a salty-looking fisherman wearing a T-shirt, oil pants and rubber boots, but no PFD (personal floatation device, or life jacket.)
Last year, the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety and the Massachusetts-based Fishing Partnership Support Services did a study exploring how commercial lobstermen viewed the use of personal flotation devices (PFDs) while they were working. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has spent time around the Maine lobster fishing fleet, their view was dim.
According to an NEC report, fishermen generally described themselves as being proactive about safety whenever possible. Virtually all boats carry, and maintain, the safety gear required by the U.S. Coast Guard. A few years ago, many lobstermen began rigging rope ladders off the stern of their boats to help them climb back on if they went overboard and some run a line under the rail to a “kill switch” they can tug to shut off the engine if they are being pulled overboard.
Now, too, sophisticated electronic navigation and communications equipment is found on all but the smallest lobster boats. So are PFDs but in most cases they’re stowed out of the way rather than worn while underway and fishing.
Lobstermen cited several reasons for their reluctance to wear PFDs despite several recent and well-documented incidents in which fishermen became entangled in trap lines and were pulled into the water. Some of them were rescued by another member of the boat’s crew, but not all of them have been so lucky.
Just last July, Jon Popham of Machiasport, captain of the lobster boat Melinda Ann, was dragged overboard when his foot got caught in a rope while setting a 15-trap trawl. His two sternmen were banding lobsters when they heard Popham hit the water. One of them dove in, cut him free and pulled him back on the boat, but the 28-year-old lobsterman died about two miles off Jonesport, leaving behind a wife and young son.
NEC interviewed more than 70 fishermen for its study. Nearly all of them had had a close shave while fishing or knew someone who had, but still had little inclination to wear PFDs. For most of them, tradition, the risk of ridicule from other fishermen and discomfort while working long hours were the key reasons that PFDs were unpopular.
This winter, according to a report first published in the Portland Press Herald, researchers from NEC and the Fishing Partnership will visit Maine ports in an effort to get lobstermen to rethink their aversion to PFDs. They plan to enlist fishermen in designing a life jacket they can wear comfortably while working.
In two years, the plan calls for prototypes to be distributed throughout the lobster fleet for testing.