This is the second of a series on the most dangerous occupations in America. The first, about the deep sea divers who repair offshore oil rigs, appeared in the February 7, 2013, issue.
A deckhand on a shrimp boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico recently packed his suitcase, announced to nobody in particular that he was going to Kmart, and walked off the stern. The ship’s captain, asleep at the time, awoke when he heard the Kmart announcement, and laughed. He didn’t hear the splash, however, and he fell back asleep. Everyone else on the boat was asleep. It was the middle of the afternoon. The deckhand’s body was never found, but his suitcase was. It contained a change of clothes.
Last year René Olier, a Gulfport fisherman, awoke in the middle of the night with chills. He suspected he had sunstroke from a day on the water. The next morning he felt pain on the hand that he had used to scoop bait. He figured he had been bitten by a horse fly. When his arm swelled, his wife drove him to a local emergency room. He was diagnosed with an infection caused by flesh-eating bacteria. A day later, his organs began to fail. Doctors told him that his arm had to be amputated if he wanted to have any chance of survival. In fifty years of fishing in the Gulf, Olier had never heard of flesh-eating bacteria. “We want people to be careful,” he told a reporter from the Hattiesburg American. “It’s out there.”
Steven Branch, a fifteen-year-old from Bayou La Batre, on the Alabama coast, was working as a deckhand on a shrimp boat called Nettie Q when his baggy shorts got caught in a winch, the mechanized apparatus that hauls trawl nets aboard once they fill with shrimp. Branch was dragged by his shorts into the winch. Another deckhand, checking the net, heard a loud thump, but it was too late. Branch was dead within seconds. Winches are responsible for nearly one third of all fatal onboard injuries in the Gulf of Mexico. Interviewed after the accident, Dominick Ficarino, the owner of Dominick’s Seafood in Bayou La Batre, called the winch the “root of all evil.”
Commercial fishermen have the second-highest occupational fatality rate in the US, 80.8 per 100,000, which is nearly twenty-five times the national average. (Loggers come first, with a rate of 109.5 per 100,000.) Since 2000, an American fisherman has died, on average, every eight days. This fact provides the premise for Deadliest Catch, a Discovery Channel series that has been airing since 2005 and has turned charismatic captains like Sig Hansen and Phil Harris into national celebrities. It follows crab fishermen on the Bering Sea, where they contend with freezing waters, apocalyptic storms, heavy machinery, and waves the size of a four-story building. The show is responsible for creating the blue-collar reality television genre; knockoffs about commercial fishing alone include Lobster Wars, Wicked Tuna, Swords, and Trawlermen.
When Deadliest Catch began filming a decade ago, Alaskan crab fishing was the deadliest job in the United States. It has since been eclipsed by shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Shrimp is the foundation of the American fishing industry. In 2003 it eclipsed tuna to become America’s best-selling seafood. When an economist conducted an inquiry for The New York Times to determine why shrimp consumption more than doubled between 1980 and 2007, he found that it was largely due to the rise of seafood fast food chains and the popularity of Forrest Gump, whose title character becomes a shrimp boat captain. Americans now consume 1.2 billion pounds of shrimp a year, or more than four pounds per person.
Nearly three quarters of that shrimp comes from the Gulf. It is a uniquely productive region for shrimp, thanks to the Mississippi River and its gargantuan nutrient load. Nitrogen and phosphorous leached from the heartland’s agricultural soil is carried by the river into the Gulf, where they help to grow algae, which shrimp eat. In recent decades, however, industrial agricultural practices have dumped far too much nitrogen into the river, causing algal blooms at the mouth of the Gulf to grow so large that they absorb all of the water’s oxygen and create dead zones that push the shrimp further out to sea.
Shrimpers’ deaths receive less attention because they tend to occur in isolation. “One person dies at a time,” says Jennifer Lincoln, a director at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). “One fatality at a time doesn’t get the headlines like a vessel that’s lost in New England or Alaska. It’s almost like a secret.”
These fatalities are also more surprising because the weather conditions in the Gulf are far milder than in the Bering Sea, at least outside of hurricane season; the boats are smaller; and the water is warm. Shrimp boats tend not to capsize, which is the leading cause of death in the commercial fishing industry, representing 51 percent of total fatalities. Shrimpers who die on the job tend to die in one of two ways: they either fall off their boat or get crushed by machinery. The deadliest piece of machinery is the winch. Reading about recent winch fatalities I was reminded of “The Mangler,” the goriest short story Stephen King ever wrote, about a laundry ironing-and-folding machine possessed by a demon: “It tried to fold everything…. But a person isn’t a sheet, Mark. What I saw…what was left of her…”
But without a winch, shrimp fishing would be impossible. There are three main classes of shrimp boats, all of which use winches to pull their nets on board. Shrimp boats used for fishing close to the shore, in estuaries or coastal marshes, are twenty to thirty feet in length. Commercial trawlers can be as long as one hundred feet. The most common offshore models along the Gulf Coast fall in the middle range, between fifty and sixty feet long. The deck is dominated by a large rigging structure that resembles an upside-down tuning fork planted between two TV-antenna rabbit ears. Attached to the rabbit ears—which are called outriggers—are the trawl nets.
When the shrimp boat is in operation, the outriggers dip into the water. The funnel-shaped trawls are lowered so that they drag along the seafloor, where they gather shrimp and whatever else lies in their path, including mud, hundreds of other species of marine life, tree stumps, and trash. “Trash” is also the word used by shrimpers to refer to the marine animals in their nets that they can’t sell. In the Gulf, “trash” might include longspined porgy, Atlantic croakers, Gulf butterfish, inshore lizardfish, bonnethead sharks, glowing phosphorescent sea walnut jellyfish, sea robins, cusk eels, remoras, orange starfish, and, despite decades of conservation efforts, sea turtles.
The trawl nets are dragged back onto the boat by metal cables that spool around a drum like thread around a spool. The drum, which is bolted to the deck, rotates around an iron axle. As the axle rotates, it pulls the cable around itself, hauling the net out of the water. The winch operates mechanically. Once it begins to turn, it is difficult to arrest. Because of the enormous amount of force involved, it doesn’t just shut off like a light switch; it grinds gradually to a halt. It takes long enough to stop that by the time a crew member gets caught in the cable, it is already too late.
This is what befell Michael Cassidy, a thirty-nine-year-old who had been a fisherman in the Florida Keys since he was a teenager. Cassidy was planning to enter a new line of work in order to spend more time with his two teenage sons. He was hauling in a net of shrimp on board the Captain Ken when his glove caught on the cable. He couldn’t pull his hand out of the glove in time and he was dragged, hand first, into the winch.
“When you go into a winch, most times you have to be cut out,” John Williams, the owner of the Captain Ken, told me. “It just happens that fast, the cables just wind right around you. That sounds very cold, but it’s what happens.”
It would seem difficult to fall off a boat in the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and difficult also to drown, until you take into account the routine of a shrimp fisherman. Shrimpers have known for a much longer time than marine scientists that shrimp behavior corresponds to wave surge. “When it’s so rough that you can’t stand up,” write Jack and Anne Rudloe in Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold (2010), “when it’s dangerous to be on deck, and accidents happen, that’s when you catch them.” The waves scour the seafloor, exposing both the shrimp and the benthic worms that the shrimp like to eat, creating a feeding frenzy—for shrimp, and for shrimpers.
When a shrimp boat goes to sea, it must stay there for days, even a week at a time, in order to turn a profit. A captain will bring a supply of groceries and drinking water, as well as eight-hundred-gallon coolers, freezers, bags of ice, extra nets, and about $5,000 worth of fuel. The more a captain spends on supplies, the more he must catch to make a profit. The best way to keep expenses down is to minimize the size of the crew. Typically the captain, who is usually the owner of the boat, will employ a single deckhand. This allows at least one person to be on shift at all times, monitoring the wheel and hauling up the nets as necessary—about every forty minutes or so, depending on the catch.
But it doesn’t tend to work out that smoothly. More often both the captain and deckhand stay awake for the first two or three days, “clocking” twenty-four hours a day, breaking only for short catnaps. Shrimpers, like truckers, are proud of their ability to stay awake for long periods. Unlike truckers, however, there are no laws in place mandating that they rest after a shift. “You’re always on your toes,” says Williams. “Half asleep and half awake. Anticipating.”
Fish are regulated much more closely than fishermen. The quality of seafood brought to market comes under strict supervision, but the conditions of fishing vessels and their operators are largely ignored. The integrity of a vessel—whether it is watertight, whether it floats—is not tested. As long as a boat weighs less than two hundred gross tons, crew members and captains don’t need to be licensed. A person can fish commercially without ever having previously been on a boat. If there is an accident, captains can radio the Coast Guard, but often they are too far away for help to come in time. Many of the Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf are reluctant to call the Coast Guard because they don’t speak English. Boats are required to have personal flotation devices (PFDs) but shrimpers don’t need to wear them. In the last fourteen years, seventy-seven shrimp fishermen have died in the Gulf. Nearly half died after falling overboard. None was wearing a life jacket.
The spring is white shrimp season, when fishermen trawl the brackish coastal waters. From August to December, brown shrimp season, fishermen head into the Gulf of Mexico. During a good year, particularly when prices are high, a fisherman can earn enough in a single season to support himself for the rest of the year. In bad years a fisherman has to find other work.
“You got to be flexible,” said Paul Lagarde, a middle-aged fisherman. He was having lunch with his friends Donald Ansardi and Henry Montelongo at Penny’s Cafe in Violet, Louisiana, seven river miles south of New Orleans. Many of the fishermen at Penny’s do construction work in the off-season. Others fish for crab, alligator, nutria, and muskrat.
“Right now, I ain’t doing nothing,” said Montelongo. “I just had open-heart surgery. I was fishing alligators in Plaquemines Parish and I caught pains in the chest and I had to go get a triple bypass.”
“That’s tough,” said Ansardi. “I had a triple bypass too.”
“I had cancer,” said Lagarde. “They cut me from stem to stern.”
“The way we eat,” said Ansardi, “all the crazy food—it was coming.”
Penny’s all-you-can-eat buffet was serving its famous fried chicken, fried shrimp, fried eggplant, onion rings, hogshead cheese, and red beans and rice, sweet tea to drink, and, for dessert, bread pudding and cheesecake.
“Oh yeah,” said Lagarde. “It was coming.”
“On the boat,” said Montelongo, “when you’re trawling, you’re always eating the wrong food. Fried food: fried shrimp, fried fish, fried hamburgers. You got a stove on the boat and you fry everything.”
“You don’t have a steady routine,” said Ansardi. “You have to go on deck and work. It’s around the clock.”
“It’s a little rough,” said Montelongo. “I ain’t going to lie to you.”
“My son fell asleep at eight o’clock in the morning,” said Lagarde. “Fished all night, catching shrimp. I had a pile of shrimp on the deck, I had shrimp in the net, and he just went down. Boom. Face first.”
“I fell asleep driving the boat,” said Ansardi.
“I start falling asleep at about three or four clocks,” said Montelongo. A “clock” is twenty-four hours. “I’m up for three days, come home and take a nap, go back out.”
“You don’t leave the shrimp when they’re there,” said Lagarde.
“My cousin will take an hour and a half nap,” said Montelongo. “Me, I can’t do that. If I go in the bunk, I’m sleeping and I can’t get up.
“You can always do something to keep you up. You clean shrimp. You pull trash out of the net—old crab traps, cement boulders. I got a truck tire last week. But you got to keep going, because it’s not going to last. You’re not going to be making this kind of money all year long. You try to make it as fast and as much as you can.”
“It’s physical work,” said Lagarde. “You got winches, pulleys, ropes—if you don’t watch what the heck you’re doing…You watch that show, Deadliest Catch? They’re in the North Sea, but you can get yourself into some bad situations out here. I’ve seen people cut their hands off. I’ve seen ropes pop and bust guys in their legs and crush their legs. It’s just like being shot in the leg with a shotgun.”
Lagarde once fell overboard while working alone on a large lake. He was a mile from the bank. He fell as he leaned over to adjust the trawl net. “I fell into the trawl,” he said. “I knew that if I didn’t get out fast the trawl would suck me into the tail and I’d drown. I swum away but then I realized that if I don’t catch up with the boat I’m going to be out here treading water. I had to swim my butt off to catch the trawl rope. I hung on until I could rest. Then I pulled myself on deck. Let me ask you, do you follow any religion?”
“I didn’t know anything about the Bible until I came down with cancer,” said Lagarde. “I accepted Jesus at my kitchen table. Buddy, let me tell you, my whole life changed. I’ve learned a lot of things.”
Later, after lunch, Lagarde caught up with me in the Penny’s parking lot. He handed me a small pamphlet. On its cover was a picture of an hourglass and the words: “What About Eternal Life?”
“There’s a reason fishermen become fishermen,” Jennifer Lincoln told me. “There’s a difference in their whole mindset. It’d be really interesting to keep track of what they eat, how much they drink, smoke, chew.”
Before NIOSH opened an office in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1991, the government had never studied the safety of the fishing industry. Until 2007, it had only examined the Alaskan industry. Recently Lincoln traveled from Anchorage to Bayou La Batre to speak to fifty fishermen about the importance of wearing personal flotation devices. She explained that NIOSH did not issue regulations, but studied safety issues and offered recommendations. The audience greeted her politely and asked questions. But they seemed disinclined to follow her advice. They complained that life jackets were too bulky and that it was too hot in the Gulf to wear them anyway. Shrimpers tend to wear nothing but a pair of shorts. The less bulky PFDs are expensive. Besides, there is no requirement to wear them. Nor is there any requirement to install emergency-stop systems on winches, even though Lincoln has argued that they would save lives.
The main problem Lincoln faces is psychological. Fishermen accept that their job is dangerous. If anything, the danger enhances the allure of the job. The idea of mitigating the risk seems distasteful, prudish, unnatural. Still Lincoln has hope that the industry will become safer, even without the government’s intervention. “When I started working for NIOSH,” she says,
I was twenty years old. I felt like I could conquer the world. Now we’re all forty. But I don’t think all fishermen are as resistant as they used to be. I hope every single one of them takes a marine safety class, finds flotation gear that they can wear, and keeps their vessel watertight. I’ve been saying the same thing for years, however.
If a person was inclined to follow rules and worry about his health, he would not likely become a fisherman. He would not choose to leave the mainland for days, defy his circadian rhythm, work irregularly and only by choice.
“They’re fiercely independent,” says John Williams, who tries to help Lincoln convey her messages to Gulf fishermen.
I can talk their language. I can fuss at them and they’re not going to throw stuff. I tell them what Jennifer has found. They’re kind of stunned at the number of recommendations. But they don’t like it when someone tells them to do something. I just don’t know what can be done on some of the issues.
A life vest could make a difference, but it’s going to be tough to have someone wear it all the time. As for the winch problem—who knows? You have to have a winch. There’s not much you can do to change the configuration to make it safer.
It comes down to the culture. The culture sets fishing apart from most run-of-the-mill jobs. Even though certain recommendations might be good for them, and they know it, they will fight it fiercely. It’s always been this way. They’re treating themselves the way they want to be treated. They have a job to do and they love doing it. To me, that’s as happy as you can get.