By Kimberly Peterson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
The advertisements appear in nearly every college newspaper across the United States: Alaska Summer Employment fisheries. Earn up to $4,000 a month on fishing boats. Free transportation, room and board! Over 8,000 openings. No experience necessary.
To some, this may seem like a dream job. Over one summer, a student can visit another part of the country and make enough money to pay expenses for the rest of the year.
But according to a recent report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the shortcomings of commercial fishing in Alaska far outweigh the benefits.
The report states that the work-related fatality rate for industries in Alaska is 35 deaths per 100,000 workers, about five times greater than any other state.
Of these fatalities in Alaska, about 40 percent took place in the commercial fishing industry, making it one of the most hazardous occupations in the nation, the report states.
There are about 11,000 people who work in Alaska's fishing industry every summer, said a spokesman for Portland-based Maritime Services, a corporation placing students in fishing jobs. Of these 11,000, about 80 percent are university students.
The spokesman preferred to remain anonymous.
"We are concerned that students would go up to Alaska with no knowledge that they are risking their lives," said Terry Hammond, a public affairs specialist for NIOSH, located in Washington D.C.
A person on a fishing boat could work up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, said Mel Myers, a director's assistant at NIOSH. This makes fatigue a factor in work-related injuries.
The primary hazard on a boat is the ocean, Hammond said.
"You're working on the open seas in a very unstable environment," she said. "You face the hazard of falling overboard and the potential for hypothermia is very high. More often than not, people are not wearing (life jackets)."
A person could also work in a cannery for long hours, processing fish, Hammond said. Cannery workers face hazards of lacerations and amputations from the sharp equipment.
Boat fishermen are paid from $2,000 to $5,000 a month, and cannery workers are paid about $3,000.
But if a worker decides to leave early, he does not get any money, Hammond said.
"They promise thousands of dollars, and you get a percentage of the cash," Hammond said. "But if you don't complete your agreement, and decide this is something you don't want to be doing, you may not get any money and you don't have a way home."
"I've had calls from parents who want to get their kids off of vessels, but they're locked on them," Myers said.
Workers usually sleep in tent "cities" or bunkhouses similar to what the military uses in basic training when they get free time, the Maritime spokesman said.
While there are fatalities, and people often lose fingers and limbs in cannery machinery, the statistics quoted by NIOSH may be overestimated, he said.
"If the jobs were inherently dangerous, it would seem to me that the state of Alaska would not allow them," he said.
Still, while there are some drawbacks to fishing in Alaska, the scenery and unusual facets of the job make it worthwhile, said David Ley, a University of Arizona geology senior who has spent eight summers working on Alaskan fishing boats.
"You get about four hours of sleep a day Ä if you're lucky Ä and you work the rest of the time," Ley said. "No one wears the life jackets, because there is no need for it. If you go overboard, it's so cold that you die of hypothermia."
Ley said turbulent weather and stormy seas do not stop many boats from fishing.
"I almost died one time in rough weather," he said. "The waves had turned the boat on its side, and if that thing had turned on top of me, I would have drowned."
The U.S. Coast Guard and insurance companies have set some safety regulations for the boats, Ley said. Workers must keep a survival suit on board and go through safety drills before the boat leaves.
Ley said he sees the NIOSH report findings as reasonable, but the main reason students fish in Alaska is for the money and scenery.
"Any job that has you working out on the ocean with beautiful country and seeing incredible nature, how can you settle for a desk job?" he said. "It's hard work, but it's so spectacular. It gives you an adrenaline rush." Read Next Article