Traditional practices blended with modern life jacket technology seen as boosting fishing safety in Alaska

Herring boats, Unalakleet harbor, Norton Sound. August 1991.

Even as safety has improved vastly in the Alaska fishing industry overall, harvesters who operate from small, open skiffs continue to face risks.

Among those who continue to contend with mortal dangers are those who use set nets in Western Alaska’s Norton Sound, a group of largely Native fishers whose families have been working on the water for generations. Set nets, typically anchored to the seabed or river bed, trap fish in fixed locations.

Now a pilot program examining ways that Indigenous knowledge addresses fishing safety in the Norton Sound community of Unalakleet has come up with some recommendations. The findings are in a recently published study authored by the two women who conducted the pilot project, Leann Fay and Mayugiaq Melanie Sagoonick of the Sitka-based Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

Fay said higher risks are almost inherent in this type of fishing as it is conducted in Unalakleet, where harvesters maneuver their small boats around fixed nets.

“The boat is just so much smaller, and it’s an open skiff and it can get flooded really easily. Also, it doesn’t take much for it to be destabilized,” she said.

One straightforward response to the problem, the research found, is to provide better life jackets. Those that are commonly used are cheaper varieties that are bulky and can be uncomfortable for active fishers, which means they sometimes do not wear them, said Fay, who was recently appointed as AMSEA’s executive director.

“They get hot; they take it off,” she said. “When you do that, you’re going to forget to put it on.”

A major drawback of the cheaper life jackets is their buckles, which can become entangled in fishing gear, she said.

Unalakleet, a fishing-dependent community in Norton Sound, is seen from the air in 2019. (Photo provided by Alaska Division of Community and Regional Affairs)

In contrast, technically advanced inflatable life jackets, though much pricier, are far easier to wear while doing the vigorous work involved in netting salmon. They have systems to automatically inflate once they are submerged in water, with the option of manual inflating. The study’s funder, the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, wound up buying dozens of the advanced life jackets and distributing 30 in Unalakleet and 20 in Shaktoolik, another Norton Sound Inupiat community, she said.

A more complicated problem for fishers in Unalakleet and similar locations is the profound change in conditions caused by climate warming, the research found.

Traditional knowledge passed down over generations is sometimes based on conditions that no longer exist, the research found. However, the traditional practice can be applied even at a time when waters, fish runs and weather are not the same as what the elders knew, Fay said.

“Part of that Indigenous knowledge was being super aware of your surroundings and paying attention and identifying the patterns, even as those patterns are changing,” she said.

As a follow-up to their work in Unalakleet, Fay and Sagoonick are planning a broader safety-research program across Norton Sound and in Bristol Bay and Yakutat that is intended to run for three years.

In the Alaska fishing industry as a whole, the fatality rate has fallen dramatically since 1990, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH.

But from 2005 to 2014, those who harvested salmon with set nets had the highest death rates in the Alaska fishing industry, according to NIOSH. The salmon set-net fishery continued to be among the deadliest fisheries in Alaska through 2019, according to NIOSH. The statistics do not indicate the death toll among Alaska Native fishers specifically, but set-net fishing with open skiffs is a common practice in Native villages, Fay said.

As of 2022, there were 6,171 set gill net permit holders actively fishing in Alaska, according to the research by Fay and Sagoonick. Of those, 42 were in Unalakleet, a community of about 725 people. Since set-net permit holders typically fish with deckhands, it is likely that there are more than 80 people in Unalakleet engaging in that harvest, the study said.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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