A Safer World for Commercial Fishermen

March 26, 2024

Advances in policy, best practices and technology are saving lives.

If there’s one fact known to both commercial fishermen and landlubbers alike, it’s that the profession is dangerous. But humanity has come a long way since we first cast off the dock lines, and fortunately there is positive news on the mariner safety front.

According to the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA), the latest research from on Alaska commercial fishing fatalities shows a 57% decrease from 2013 to 2022.

The bottom line: mariners are not alone when it comes to emphasizing safety, whether the effort includes National Institute of Occupational Safety (NIOSH), which tracked the decrease in fishing deaths, or the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Commercial fishing is still one of the most dangerous occupations,” AMSEA Executive Director Leann Cyr said. “But a lot of progress is happening due to efforts from the USCG, NIOSH, marine safety organizations such as AMSEA, and numerous marine safety partners, fishing groups, tribes and community efforts.”

AMSEA’s mission is to reduce injury and death in the marine and freshwater environment through education and training provided by a network of qualified marine safety instructors. Much of this progress has been enabled by cutting-edge technology.

For companies like ACR Electronics, moving new crew safety equipment to market involves a minefield of bureaucracies, including the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services (RTMC), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), International Maritime Organization (IMO), and more.

“It takes a lot of time,” said Rich Galasso, the North American Sales Manager of ACR Electronics/Ocean Signal, of the process of getting new technology to the public. He has been in the marine industry for 30 years with giant tuna commercial fishing experience. “It costs a lot of money. You got to pay for certifications. You got to run these products through every government on the planet.”

Although nothing happens quickly, there are proven signs of crew safety progress thanks to technology like the 406MHz International Cospas-Sarsat Programme that’s been in place since 1991. ACR is a big player in the 406MHz world.

Galasso cites with pride, “53,000 saved lives and counting (and) three rescues a day somewhere in the world. It’s a proven technology.”

When it comes to maritime safety technology, the tension between collaboration and conflict with policymakers rules the game.

Here we look at the current crew safety technologies available on the market that may help you and yours return safe and sound to homeport. Note, this information is offered in the spirit of being a useful resource and is not a direct endorsement of any of the products, companies or policymaking organizations.

“Titanic Shift” in PLBs: Integrated with AIS, new RLS Capabilities

According to Cyr, the ACR’s ResQLink AIS is at the top of her list of crew safety equipment. “(This) Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is the first to include both AIS (Automatic Identification System) and NFC (Near Field Communication) in addition to standard satellite notification through the Cospas-Sarsat rescue system. Before this technology, fishermen had to choose between either a PLB or AIS device.”

An ACR ResQLink 400 personal locator beacon
An ACR ResQLink 400 personal locator beacon. Photo: ACR.

One of the main critiques of emergency beacons both on and off the water is that once activated, the person in distress has no indication if the signal was received help is actually on the way. Those days may be over with Return Link Services (RLS) functionality now available on ACR Electronics.

“Once the satellite receives your emergency signal, it will send back a (flashing light) to your beacon indicating that the message has been received,” Cyr said. “It is very comforting for a survivor to be able to see that their signal was received and the SAR system has been activated.”

Cospas Sarsat
A diagram of Return Link Services technology in use. Image: ACR.

For Galasso, the RLS capabilities have been a long time coming.

“We’ve been building RLS returning services into some of our products, literally, for 17 years in anticipation of this technology,” he said.

The big moment came when the satellite network caught up with the concept in the summer of 2020. ACR’s concept became reality overnight.

“The ACR V5 and the Ocean Signal rescueME EPIRB3 are the state-of-the-art IMO compliant products that also incorporate the new RLS capabilities, and the new AIS PLB-450 in the PLB version,” Galasso said. The AIS PLB-450 had been on the market since September.

“Both are titanic shifts in the historical applications and feature sets of the 406MHz beacon world and are probably the most important items,” Galasso stated.

He added that this new generation of PLBs was made possible thanks to a major IMO mandate that went into effect in July 2022. Bottom line, EPIRB and AIS integration into PLBs is now in demand. “The government has its wisdom had said, ‘Yes, we want you to do these things’ and yet they didn’t move very fast to approve them,” Galasso said. “So even though the mandate has been in place for 18 months, the new products have been out for less than a year. And in some cases, six months, depending on what you’re looking at.”

Galasso explained that prior to the new IMO mandate, PLBs were subjected to constraining rules such as requiring their own dedicated battery and antenna.

“The best we could do is physically share the same housing,” he explained. “But it still had to have different ways to turn it on. It had to have different batteries. It had to have different antennas. And it made it impractical; too big, too expensive, just didn’t make sense.”

Thanks to the new IMO mandate, the marriage of the 406MHz EPIRB PLB and AIS is complete.

Beyond PLBs: Audio Protection, High Tech PFDs, Deck Safety

Younger generations may wonder where the smartphone fits into the conversation. According to Cyr, iPhone 14 and later models do feature an automatic distress signal within the devices. Although basic and less specialized, the feature already has saved lives at sea.

“We had a recent tragedy in Sitka where two youth(s) died, but three people were rescued by the (Coast Guard) while trying to stay on the bottom of their capsized vessel when they activated their emergency distress on an iPhone,” Cyr revealed.

Of course, there is something to be said for the classic advice to wear your Personal Floatation Device (PFD). These days, it’s becoming normal for PFDs to have many of these technologies integrated into the unit.

Cyr wanted “to highlight” the use of PFDs with PLBs or Personal Locator Devices worn on deck, especially in particular conditions. She mentioned “at night, when alone, when gear is being set/hauled, in bad weather, crossing hazardous bars” among other hazards. 

“Falling overboard is one of the leading fishing fatalities and these devices will give you a chance of surviving a fall overboard but they need to be worn,” she added. “Fortunately, more and more wearable PFDs and floatation aids are getting developed every day.”

“All of the technologies referenced are constantly improving,” continued Cyr. “I’m also excited for what’s on the horizon for MOB (man overboard) devices. I know of a few innovative projects being done to make PFDs more wearable, so be on the lookout for those.”

From the ACR perspective, Galasso cited Bluetooth-based tethers, which are already mainstream in the recreational boating world. Essentially, if an individual wearing a Bluetooth device is detected as out of range of a designated location aboard, an alarm will sound or the engine will stop.

The company also plans to release a new deck-mounted searchlight soon, a key part of MOB rescue efforts in low-visibility conditions.

But while MOB scenarios tend to dominate safety-at-sea discussions, other hazards in the industry persist and are, frankly, often more likely to impact workers on a daily basis.

“Another exciting innovation is the development of high-tech electronic earbuds which lower the levels of harmful frequencies, while amplifying speech to prevent tinnitus or hearing loss,” explained Cyr. “A version made by OTTO (NoizeBarrier Micro) was tested by the USCG and selected as the preferred hearing protection product on the market right now. The buds are pricey (more than $400 retail), but I’m really excited about the improving technology.”

OTTO’s NoizeBarrier Micro rechargeable electronic earplugs in their case.
OTTO’s NoizeBarrier Micro rechargeable electronic earplugs in their case. Photo: OTTO.

AMSEA is also partnering with the American Bureau of Shipping to create a voluntary, anonymous “near miss” reporting system. The platform is a way for mariners to share experiences with one another to avoid making life-threatening mistakes.

Perhaps it will evolve into an organic online community, a sort of sea salty Reddit.

Cyr also cited deck winch safety concerns.

“There is increasing attention on the need for innovation to improve deck winch safety, especially anchor winches,” she said, “so I see innovation on the horizon.”   

ELT tester
AIS Testing BT200
AIS Testing BT200
AIS Testing BT200
AIS Testing BT200
AIS Testing BT200
WST Antenna 420-100
WST Antenna 100-GAA-SMA-M
WST Cable 130-029
WST Cable 130-002
WST BT200 screen
WST BT200 screen