Jackets for safe lobstering

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff file photoErin Lally, left, and Amanda Roome, of the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety: Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing, ready a life jacket for sale at their booth at Morss Pier in Manchester in April. The Lifejackets for Lobstermen campaign will return to Manchester and Gloucester over the next two weeks.

Since April 1, they've sold more than 350 life jackets and flotation bibs of various styles to commercial lobstermen in Massachusetts and Maine, which isn't bad for an outfit that doesn't dabble in the for-profit business of marine safety apparel.

The folks at the Lifejackets for Lobstermen campaign may not be in it for the gold, but they're certainly in it to save lives among the region's lobster harvesters — the grand majority of whom never have consistently worn a personal flotation device while actively fishing.

"According to our own surveys, less than 8 percent of lobstermen say they wear any sort of personal flotation device," said Rebecca Weil, the research coordinator for the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety's Lifejackets for Lobstermen campaign. "And of that 8 percent that say they have worn them, most said they only wear them part of the time, like when they're setting or hauling traps in rough seas."

And therein lies the rub: For whatever reason, commercial lobstermen — much like their groundfish counterparts — historically have resisted wearing personal flotation devices while plying their dangerous trade.

Perhaps it's due to tradition or a fishing culture steeped in an innate distrust of anything that might get in the way of performing fishing tasks. Perhaps it's plain comfort. Or economics. Or just plain stubbornness.

Supporting waterfront work

Whatever it is, the fact remains that commercial fishing is one of the three most dangerous professions — the other two being farming and timber logging — in the U.S. economy and personal safety needs a seat at the daily table, Weil said.

With that message in tow, the staff of the Lifejackets for Lobstermen campaign are in the midst of an eight-month barnstorming campaign to 40 lobstering communities throughout the nation's two primary lobster-harvesting states, Massachusetts and Maine, to showcase — and sell — the various devices that could save lobstermen's lives.

The two-van convoy will make its way to Cape Ann in the second week of July.

The campaign will set up shop for three days — July 11, 12 and 15 — at Manchester's Masconomo Park and for four days — July 16 to 19 — in Gloucester at the Everett R. Jodrey State Fish Pier.

The Gloucester run also will feature a community event organized with the Fishing Partnership that will feature stakeholder information booths, food and other attractions to help support work on the waterfront.

The campaign has not set the specific times for the Gloucester community event, but it is expected to start around mid-day and run until the late afternoon. In case of inclement weather, the rainout date is July 18.

Each day's regular session is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. and run until late in the afternoon. Commercial lobstermen — and commercial fishermen with a lobster bycatch permit — are eligible to try on and purchase any of the 11 different styles of personal flotation devices with differing wear types, buoyancy and safety certifications.

Favorites, at a discount

Weil said all sales include a 50 percent discount, bringing the price range to $19 to $120.

"We're trying to make it as easy as possible to find what they need personally when fishing on the boat," Weil said. "In our surveys, we saw that part of the reason lobstermen weren't buying them was because of cost. So, we're trying to address that with the discount as an incentive."

The 11 available models, Weil said, are based on feedback from lobstermen during the initial stage of the campaign that is being funded with grants from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"The beauty of the project is that everything is based on what the fishermen asked for," Weil said. "What we're offering now is completely derived from the input from fishermen."

Two years ago, the campaign worked with 181 lobstermen in Massachusetts and Maine, providing each with one of nine different styles of personal flotation devices to wear for a month. The campaign used the feedback from those trials to assemble the various styles now available through the campaign.

"What we heard is they want something comfortable and flat so it doesn't get in the way of their traps or present any danger for entanglement with gear," Weil said. "They were also concerned with the devices not being too hot to work in."

Weil said the campaign has worked with other organizations in getting the word out to lobstermen, including the Fishing Partnership Support Services, the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, the Maine Lobstermen's Association, the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen's Association and McMillan Offshore Survival Training.

"We couldn't do this without everyone putting in their wisdom," Weil said. "In the end, we're all just trying to help save lives."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.