Lobstermen Are Gearing Up!

by Rebecca Weil

Stonington, Maine, 2016. John McMillan (left), McMillan Offshore Survival Training, two lobster fishers who have agreed to test the PFD coveralls and Erin Mank, McMillan Offshore Survival Training.

In a project just for lobstermen, lobstermen are gearing up in life jackets! Local fishermen are looking for solutions to keep lobstermen alive if they fall overboard. As data from the U.S. Coast Guard demonstrates, falls overboard are the most frequent cause of death in the lobster fishing community; however, these events do not have to be fatal, especially with lobstermen driving innovative solutions for life jacket designs.

In the past, it was a rare individual who actually wore a life jacket while working. While this has improved slightly over the past few years as life jacket designs have changed, obstacles still remain. Personal flotation devices (PFDs) can largely prevent those losses, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies, however, PFD designs must be versatile and user-friendly.

To address existing design challenges, lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts will be testing eight different PFD models over the winter and summer. While they fish, they will be gathering valuable insights that can be used to improve the comfort and utility of PFD designs. These key insights will be relayed back to The Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety (NEC), who will share their ideas with designers and PFD manufacturers.

Several years ago, NEC project coordinators spoke with lobstermen to better understand the reasons PFDs were not being worn. From these conversations, core concerns were identified. Comfort, entanglement, cost, social dynamics, and workability were all reasons fishermen cited for not wearing PFDs. However, in addition to these concerns, fishermen were the first to say that death is often an outcome without a PFD. Recognizing that deaths from falls overboard are of great concern to Northeast lobstermen, their families and communities, the Northeast Center conceived this project to find a solution that would not force fishermen to choose between immediate comfort or the possibility of drowning.

Working with Northeast lobstermen, the Northeast Center is also partnering with Fishing Partnership Support Services, and McMillan Offshore Survival Training to find solutions that meet the needs of this specific fishing sector, by working with those who are most knowledgeable about the topic-lobstermen themselves.

The lobstermen who are out testing the PFDs will be receiving an honorarium for participating, and will get to keep the PFD when the project is complete—but the most important aspect is they are helping to keep lobstermen alive and fishing!

If you would like to help with this effort, watch for project staff this summer when they are dockside again to distribute more PFDs. They will also be calling fishermen for their input, and will offer to reimburse them for their valuable time. Participants will be invited on a random basis in order to provide a wide range of perspectives.

The NEC would like to thank all the lobstermen who are helping with this endeavor! They are also extremely grateful to the following manufacturers who have donated or provided discounted rates on PFDs for this project: Hyde Sportswear, Kent, Mullion, Mustang Survival, Quatic Apparel, Spinlock, and Stormline. Thank you for all of your support!

For further information on the project, contact Julie Sorensen or Rebecca Weil at 607-547-6023.