A Most Dangerous Occupation

Peter Bohler/Redux
A crewman next to a winch on a crab boat entering the port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, during an episode of The Deadliest Catch, October 2012

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…

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