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A Growing Number Of New England Lobstermen Wear Life Jackets While At Sea

Steve Holler and his sternman Frank Lenardis dump freshly caught lobsters into a holding tray on Holler's boat, the November Gale. (Hannah Chanatry/WBUR)
Steve Holler and his sternman Frank Lenardis dump freshly caught lobsters into a holding tray on Holler's boat, the November Gale. (Hannah Chanatry/WBUR)

More lobstermen in New England are wearing life jackets while they work.

It's thanks to a research project from the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety. Over the past few years, researchers surveyed and recruited 181 lobstermen to test out different styles and used their feedback to redesign the jackets so that they worked for their needs.

"Lifejackets for Lobstermen" then took 11 final designs and drove them from port to port, helping lobstermen at each dock figure out which option was best for them, and then selling them at a discount.

"The conversation usually started with, 'I don't know if I could wear anything like this,' " said Jessica Echard, one of the project coordinators. But once they started trying on the new designs, "then they'd start trying on more. And then they'd call their friends over. And then they'd get their crew. And then they'd call their family to come down. So the conversation would go from somewhat skeptical to very interested."

In all, the project distributed 1,087 new life jackets.

Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, said she's already seen a shift in the attitude toward life jackets.

"I know a lot of guys are wearing them, and they're proudly wearing them," she said. "Many of our members purchased them and are looking to purchase more for their crew going forward because it's such a critical component to safety."

The hope is that the shift makes a dent in the fatality rate in the commercial fishing industry. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, falls overboard represent 22% of deaths in the industry in Massachusetts; most of those falls were lobstermen and in every case, the person was not wearing a life jacket.

But prior to the study, life jackets also posed serious concerns for lobstermen. When explaining why they chose not to wear them, lobstermen often cited weight, heat, restriction of movement and the risk of buckles or straps getting caught in lobster traps that could drag them off the boat.

Casoni said the reason the "Lifejackets for Lobstermen" study was so successful is because it took those concerns seriously.

"I think where the lobstermen feel valued is their input was taken and implemented into the final product," she said.

That final product has already saved lives, according to Casoni. She said a lobsterman whose captain purchased several of the new life jackets was wearing one when he went overboard a few weeks later, giving his crew more time to rescue him.

The Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety will now pass the project on to Fishing Partnership Support Services, based in Burlington, Massachusetts. The organization is expected to incorporate the new life jackets into their regular safety trainings.

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Hannah Chanatry Twitter All Things Considered Senior News Writer
Hannah Chanatry is WBUR’s senior All Things Considered newswriter. 

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