Commercial Fisherman Working on a Fishing BoatWhile commercial fishing remains a high-risk occupation, the number of fishing fatalities due to traumatic injury has decreased due to safety improvements and fishery-specific interventions. These improvements are partly due to research conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), whose efforts target specific causes of injury to reduce the incidence of accidents and fatalities among the nation’s fishermen.

Risks to U.S. Commercial Fishermen by Work Location

Commercial fishing is so hazardous an occupation that NIOSH performed a comprehensive 15-year study to identify the causes of fatalities in U.S. fisheries by location. From 2000 to 2014, 725 maritime workers were involved in fatal accidents while fishing in the U.S., with the causes of death varying by region.

East Coast

East Coast fisheries were the most dangerous work environments during the study period, with 225 commercial fishing deaths due to traumatic injury (15 fatalities yearly) due to:

  • Vessel disasters. Vessel disasters such as groundings and fires were a leading cause of commercial fishing fatalities, accounting for 37% of all deaths.
  • Falls overboard. Falls overboard resulted in 24 deaths, 4 of which were caused by gear entanglements. In half of these cases, the falls were not witnessed by another crewmember because the victim was working alone on deck.
  • Onboard fatalities. Four crewmembers were killed after being severely injured in the course of their duties. One worker was struck by heavy equipment, two became entangled in equipment, and one who sustained several injuries after his vessel collided with a channel marker.


Alaskan fisheries saw 179 deaths (12 fatalities per year) during the study period, commonly due to:

  • Vessel disasters. Sinking, capsizing, and other abandon ship incidents accounted for 33% of all deaths, most of which were caused by vessel instability and being struck by large waves.
  • Overboard incidents. Tripping or slipping on deck and loss of balance led to 14 crewmember deaths by drowning. None of the crewmembers were wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) when they drowned.
  • Onboard fatalities. Equipment entanglement, severe chemical burns, and asphyxiations in a confined space resulted in 5 deaths.

Gulf of Mexico

Gulf of Mexico fisheries saw 164 maritime worker deaths (11 fatalities per year) due to traumatic injuries from:

  • Vessel disasters. Half of all fatalities in the Gulf of Mexico between 2010–2014 were caused by vessel disasters, most of which resulted from collisions, allisions, instability, and flooding.
  • Falls overboard. Contact with gear or loss of balance was identified as the cause of 13 fatal overboard incidents. None of the crewmembers who suffered death by drowning were wearing PFD.
  • Onboard fatalities. Aside from two instances of assault, the majority of fatal injuries sustained while working resulted from contact with equipment. One crewmember was fatally injured by a hook, one was killed by a pulley, and four workers died after being caught in winches.

West Coast

West Coast fisheries saw 115 deaths due to traumatic injury (8 fatalities annually) during the study period as a result of:

  • Vessel disasters. Large waves, collision with rocks, and flooding caused four separate vessel disasters in 2012, resulting in 8 crewmember deaths.
  • Overboard incidents. Three crewmembers drowned as a result of being struck by gear, entangled in gear, and falling into the water; none of these fishermen were wearing a PFD when working on deck.
  • Diving fatalities. Diving incidents resulted in four deaths, 2 involving gear entanglement and 2 caused by rapid ascent.

No matter what part of the world your vessel fishes, you are owed federal maritime injury compensation benefits if you are flying the U.S. flag. If you or a loved one has been injured while performing maritime work, our attorneys can determine who may be liable for your accident and what you are owed under the law. Call 1-800-3-MAY-DAY today to set up your initial consultation, or download your complimentary copy of Are You a Seaman Injured in a Maritime Accident? Know Your Rights.


Paul T. Hofmann
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Focused on personal injury, with an emphasis on maritime, railroad and construction worker tort claims.