Alaska fishermen join sleep deprivation study

At least one fisherman from Cook Inlet is participating in the sleep deprivation study. Outside of Alaska, researchers are also following fishermen in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

For commercial fishermen, the difference between getting a few more hours of sleep or not can sometimes be a question of livelihood.

That’s what Jerry Dzugan explains in his classes. He’s the executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, or AMSEA, based in Sitka.

“The less you sleep, the more money you make in some sense,” he said. “And that’s a really hard thing to overcome. Because everybody wants to make more money.”

It’s one of the factors driving the issue of sleep deprivation among fishermen, he said. AMSEA and several other organizations are studying 200 commercial fishermen over the next two years to quantify the problem, and gauge fishermen’s concerns when it comes to how their sleep patterns affect their overall health.

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Studies show sleep deprivation leads to more accidents and worsens physical performance, both on land and at sea. Safety boards have cited fatigue as a factor in many fishing boat crashes, like the grounding of the Savannah Ray off Kodiak in 2015 and a deadly collision near La Push, Wash., in 2012.

And long term, sleep deprivation can stir up a host of health issues. Dzugan said it’s something he talks about with the fishermen in his community.

“I don’t think I’ve had one person tell me it’s not a problem,” he said.

But there’s little research on how sleep deprivation impacts commercial fishermen or what can be done to improve outcomes.

“There is a lot of data, both qualitative and quantitative data, on sleep deprivation,” Dzugan said. “I mean, the military alone has done volumes and volumes on this because of performance of personnel in the military. But not much has been done in the commercial fishing industry. And I think that’s the big thing.”

The Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety is leading the study, called “Assessments of Sleep Deprivation and Associated Health and Cognitive Impacts in Commercial Fishermen.” It’s funded by a grant from the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Institute for Occupational Health.

AMSEA is collecting data in Alaska while research teams in Oregon and the Northeast collect data there.

Dzugan said he’s hoping to study 57 Alaska fishermen. Already, he said, AMSEA has conducted six qualitative interviews, including one with a fisherman from Kenai.

Researchers will also follow fishermen’s sleep patterns through a tracking app and do health exams this summer and fall. Also, they plan to release a podcast with information about sleeping at sea.

Dzugan said he knows firsthand that sleep deprivation is a problem for fishermen. He remembers dealing with it when he was longlining in the 1980s.

“I was fishing halibut openers with an hour and a half of sleep a night, for days on end,” he said. “And I personally felt the effects of that.”

He said fishery management decisions can indirectly contribute to the problem, including when it comes to limiting crews to certain numbers or opening fisheries for short, unrelenting periods of time.

As for a fix, he said, there’s no silver bullet. He hopes the study will raise more awareness about what he says poses a real threat to fishermen in Alaska and beyond.

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