Cold Water and Safety Training
in Maine

by Ann Backus, MS

Ann Backus, MS is an Instructor in Occupational Health at Harvard School of Public Health, 665 Huntington Ave., Boston MA 02115, 617/432-3327,

This Fishermen’s Forum issue of Fishermen’s Voice is a good time to check in on the amount of safety training that Maine fishermen have. We have made some progress on that front. Maine requires those seeking a full lobster license to serve as an apprentice for a minimum of 24 months, complete a US Coast Guard Drill Instructor course, as well as log 1,000 hours and at least 200 days fishing.

In urchin and sea cucumber dive fishery, those who seek a dive tender license must show recent completion of First Aid and CPR courses and pass the online Dive Tender Course offered by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

However, there is still a large number of fishermen, across the various Maine fisheries, who have not had safety training within the past five years or have never had safety training. Why is safety training important? In Maine, we fish in hazardous waters, cold water. Except for within 20 nautical miles of the coast, the waters off the Maine coast, i.e., north of the Isles of Shoals at N 42º58’ near the state boundary between New Hampshire and Maine, are classified by the US Coast Guard as cold water year round.

Let’s talk about what you might learn during a training session about cold water. By Coast Guard definition water is considered cold when the monthly low water mean is 59ºF (15º C) or less.

How did they arrive at this number? According to answers given at a House Subcommittee meeting on Coast Guard and Marine Transportation held February 1998, the Coast Guard “investigated the validity of the 60ºF criterion by examining casualties which had occurred in water temperatures between 50ºF (10ºC) and 70ºF (21ºC). The results of that study showed that 60ºF water “was “safe” for an unprotected person for about two hours.

They rationalized that would give fishermen two hours to get to a life raft (if the capsized vessel had one) or be rescued.

But could a person still function, i.e., tread water or stay afloat that long? Maybe not. Studies show that functional disability sets in between 2 to 15 minutes after entering cold water. That includes both decreased muscle function and impaired cognitive or brain function. This is a problem since all advice is to get as much of your body out of the water as possible by climbing onto a capsized boat or other flotsam. Functional disability might mean you wouldn’t have the strength to climb onto something or hold on.

The report to the House Committee also pointed out that at 60ºF and 4.5 hours of submersion only 50 percent of those in the water would survive. Why worry which 50 percent you’ll be in—join a training class and be sure you have cold water survival techniques and a survival suit that fits.

A report by Mary E. Davis and Ann Backus titled Occupational Safety and Compliance in the Maine Commercial Fishing Industry (July 2011) listed the results of a survey of 259 captains in the lobster, scallop, shrimp, and urchin/sea cucumber fisheries in Maine. Survey data from this study, funded by the Maine Sea Grant program, showed that 76 percent of the captains surveyed had never had cold water training, 11 percent had not had cold water training within the last 5 years, leaving only 13 percent of captains having had cold water training. Ninety-four percent of the captains surveyed described themselves as experienced, 84 percent had a family history of fishing and 84 percent reported they could swim.

Given that level of experience and history, safety and first-aid training did not show up as strongly as it should have. The median years of fishing by those who took the survey was 27 years, so the interviewed captains were highly experienced. In addition to the fact that 76 percent had not had cold-water training…

• 26 percent, one quarter, had not had CPR training;
• 34 percent, fully one-third, had never had first aid training;
• 59 percent had never had survival suit training;
• 66 percent had not had life raft training; and
• 78 percent had not participated in a drill instructor course.

Even more striking is that fewer than a quarter of the captains interviewed had had any of these trainings within the past five years.

Safety Training at the 2012 Fishermen's Forum –
March 1, 2, 3

If you fall into this category of lacking safety training, you can experience some of it at the 2012 Maine Fishermen’s Forum, which will be held March 1, 2, 3 at the Samoset Resort in Rockport. Coast Guard personnel will conduct free water safety training which includes inspecting a survival suit you supply, donning a survival suit (yours or theirs), practicing survival techniques, and popping open/entering a life raft. Join them on Friday and Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. It is hardly cold water in the Samoset pool, but you can practice the techniques!

Beyond the Fishermen’s Forum opportunity, check out local safety trainings; give Kevin Plowman at the Marine safety Office in Portland a call at (207)-780-3256 for information on upcoming safety trainings, and/or check out the web for trainings that have been posted.

Have a safe fishing season.


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