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New England Fishermen Put Down Their Bait for Day of Safety Training

Todd Bookman/NHPR

Commercial fishermen in Northern New England face their fair share of challenges. Along with declining fish stocks and tight catch regulations, the occupation also remains one of the most dangerous in the country.

With that ever-present risk in mind, dozens of fishermen turned out in New Castle, New Hampshire recently for a day-long safety training exercise.

“Yeah, I’ve been on boats that sunk, had to get overboard, and had to get in my survival suit, gone in the water in the wintertime. And so, I’ve been through it,” says John Emmerton, a fourth generation fisherman with fingers thick like sausages. “It’s pretty 'hairy carey' when you have to deal with it in reality. Never happens when it’s nice like today.”

Emmerton is usually found in the Gulf of Maine aboard the Angela Michelle, but today he and some of his crewmates are on dry land in New Castle for a free safety event put on by the non-profit Fishing Partnership Support Services.

“The ocean is a dangerous place,” says Ed Dennehy, training director for Fishing Partnership. “There are weather issues, there are equipment issues if you don’t care care of your boat, then you have flooding issues, or a fire. And when you are out in the ocean, you are your only person around to save yourself. There is no ambulance, there is no fire engine. So you need to know how to address those kinds of issues.”

While fishing boats are subject to routine inspections to ensure there are items such as flares and life rafts aboard, there is no real oversight over whether crew know how to use them properly.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
Participants in the training program get tips on how to maintain and quickly slip into safety suits.

And so, for a couple of hours under a warm sun, 56 men and women, including staff from research vessels, get hands on experience in a controlled setting. Along with lighting off flares and getting tips on surviving in a life raft, instructors show the best ways to slip into an immersion suit--a lifesaving brightly-colored full-body outfit that protect against hypothermia and drowning.

“If you lean back a little bit, it helps burp air out of the suit, and you get a running start on that zipper,” explains the instructor.

After snaking into them, the fishermen complete the experience by jumping off a dock.

In another area of the pier, there’s a session on how to get into a helicopter hoist, and correctly extinguish fires on a boat.

Many fishermen taking part in the event say they’ve had exposure to these different emergency techniques at one time or another, but admit they don’t get opportunities to practice or ask questions during their normal work days.

“To try to figure things out last minute, when something’s happening, even if you are pretty clever, it’s not gonna happen,” says Thomas Santaguida, who owns the lobster boat Carolina Elizabeth. “You don’t have enough time to think about it. So it’s gotta be almost like muscle memory.”

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
Flares, along with life rafts and helicopter hoists, were all discussed as part of the event.

There is an acceptance among these men and women that, at some point, fishing turns dangerous, and anything that helps prepare for those moments can make the difference.

“Me and my wife have recovered two or three people after they were lost at sea. And we brought them home for the burial for the families,” says Mike Waldren, a commercial fisherman from Kittery Point, Maine.

“So I have firsthand experience...but it is part of what we do. I think we are kind of desensitized to it. Every fisherman has a friend or a relative that died out there, usually.”

For both weathered veterans and the younger fisherman, it’s those inescapable experiences that drive interest in events like these.

“Just based on the turnout we are getting at the trainings, the whole idea of safety is now starting to catch on a lot more. And we’re slowly but surely changing the culture,” says Ed Dennehy with Fishing Partnership Support Services.

This is the first time the training has been held in New Hampshire. Dennehy says they hope to be back in future years.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at
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