BLUE HILL — No one who lives on the coast of Maine, or reads the newspaper, underestimates the dangers fishermen face every time they go out on their boats. They can get snagged by a winch cable, struck by a piece of heavy rigging or pitched over the side.
Few lobstermen who go overboard are wearing lifejackets, also called personal flotation devices (PFDs). An effort involving several lobster industry associations, safety specialists and researchers, the Lifejackets for Lobstermen project, is underway with hopes to change that.
On May 17, two vans from the nonprofit Lifejackets for Lobstermen project pulled up outside the Blue Hill firehouse just above the town dock on Blue Hill Harbor and set up displays of PFDs and educational materials inside the Gad Robertson Room to await a hoped-for onslaught of local lobstermen.
It was the first of nine scheduled visits to Downeast harbors. Earlier, the vans visited several Maine harbors along the Midcoast.
Project staffers Erin Lally and Mandy Roome were on hand to help lobstermen try on and get information about several styles of PFDs and to buy one of them, if they wished, at a one-time, 50 percent discount price.
Blue Hill Harbormaster Denny Robertson had put out word of the visit and by 10:30 or so a trickle of lobstermen began coming through the door. So far, Robertson said, only three Blue Hill boats had started fishing, so more lobstermen were expected later in the day.
One of the first to buy a PFD was Surry lobsterman Ethan Kane. He’s just traded his 26-footer for a 35-foot boat and said the PFDs made sense as long as they didn’t get in the way while fishing.
The vans were scheduled to be in Tremont, Southwest Harbor, Bar Harbor and Lamoine May 22 and 23.
An up-to-date van schedule is posted on the Lifejackets for Lobstermen Facebook page. Lobstermen who want to buy a lifejacket and are exempt from the Maine sales tax should bring their exemption certificates with them.
The movement to get lobstermen to start wearing PFDs when they fish has serious underpinnings.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, lobster fishing deaths accounted for the highest number of occupational fatalities in East Coast fisheries between 2010 and 2014. Half of those deaths resulted from falling overboard while another 30 percent came as a consequence of a vessel disaster. Based on fatality report narratives, none of the recovered victims was wearing a lifejacket.
For the past several years, researchers at the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety: Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing have been working with lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts to learn why lifejacket use is uncommon in the lobster fishery.
The research has had the support of, among other groups, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association and McMillan Offshore Survival Training.
“We’ve been working with lobstermen over the past few years to identify user-friendly, commercially available lifejackets and fortunately, we have identified many that lobstermen find appealing,” Project Coordinator Rebecca Weil said. “We have also discovered that choosing a lifejacket is really a matter of personal preference, so fishermen need to have a number of options to consider, as well as information on the various features that will likely meet their specific work needs.”