From left, Erik Christensen, Matt Hassler and Sam Nygren fish in Maine 6-7 days a week from June to October. Christensen says safety is a high priority out on the open waters. Contributed

SOUTH PORTLAND — Former commercial lobsterman Pete Morse is unlikely to forget May 13, 1994. That’s the date when he was involved in a maritime accident where the ship sank at sea. If it wasn’t for his lifeboat and survival suit, he said he wouldn’t be alive today.

Morse, of Buxton, who now runs a deep-sea fishing charter business out of South Portland, said ever since he’s been adamant about taking extra precautions while at sea. However, he said many lobstermen are hesitant to follow Coast Guard recommendations when it comes to safety. The Coast Guard and others associated with the fisheries industry hope free training offered to fishermen next week will dramatically change the culture of boating safety in what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics considers one of the most dangerous jobs in America.

The session, hosted by the organization Fishing Partnership Support Services, which promotes the health and wellbeing of fishermen, in cooperation with the Coast Guard and the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership, teaches firefighting, responding to a man overboard, first aid and how to swim in a survival suit.

Attendees can choose to do one day of training on Oct. 31, or stay for the second day of training Nov. 1 to receive a drill conductor certificate, which allows fishermen to conduct their own required monthly emergency drills rather than hire someone to do it. The two-day training also fulfills a requirement needed for fishermen under 20 years old to obtain their lobstering license.

Since no formal education is required to become a fisherman, Capt. Robb Couture of the South Portland Fire Department said training like this provides people with the knowledge necessary to survive should chaos ensue on the open ocean.

“If you’ve ever gone so far out in the ocean that you can’t see land, you really are all on your own,” Couture said. “It could be a long time before someone gets to you, so this training is about getting them to take care of themselves and use their resources appropriately.”

Erik Christensen, who lives in Sebago and fishes almost seven days a week from June to October, said safety is integral to his job. Knowing how to use equipment like life jackets, flare kits and lifeboats is critical, he said.

“How we ensure proper knowledge and use of these tools is through drills,” Christensen said. “After a drill, you can talk about what went well and where you can improve so that in the event of a real emergency you’re as prepared as possible.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, commercial fishing has the highest on-the-job fatality rate, with 127 fishermen per 100,000 dying on the job. Deaths are usually due to bad weather, malfunctioning gear and falling overboard.

“Fishermen are very independent folks, they’ve been doing it hundreds of years without outside help,” Director of Safety Training for Fishing Partnership Support Services Ed Dennehy said. “Safety equipment costs money and they don’t want to spend more than they have to. Their mentality is sometimes, ‘if the boat is going down, I’m going down with it’ but that attitude is slowly changing.”

Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Examiner Brian Smith, who performs boat inspections from Bar Harbor to Boothbay, said fishermen often don’t realize they have issues with their equipment until it is too late. As a retired member of the Coast Guard, he has seen first-hand how the independence of fishermen has been detrimental to their safety.

“Back then, it was almost like a badge of honor to die at sea doing this job, but now we tell people we want them to come home to their families,” he said. “The dockside examinations I perform, and the training also, help prevent bad things from happening to them.”

Morse attended the fishermen safety training event two years ago and said it’s an absolute must for people working on the water.

“You learn things in that class you’d never think of otherwise,” he said.

“Fishery has changed ⁠— now, Lobsterman do overnight shifts in the dead of winter, 20-30 miles off the coast. We’re a long way from home … and safety is important.”

Christensen said when fishermen are 40 miles offshore and the Coast Guard is two hours away, they have no choice but to be self-sufficient and independent. However, he said it’s incredible how fishermen help each other out on the water.

“If someone needs a tow or gets in a bind someone is going to help you out,” he said. “Even if it’s a guy you don’t get along with, or even a complete stranger, being isolated by water brings out the best in people and creates a brotherhood.”

Dennehy said this year, the organization received a $350,000 grant from the Coast Guard to use over a two-year period to train commercial fishermen nationwide. With an additional $350,000 raised through their own funding efforts, he said the money will be used to buy equipment and pay instructors.

Training will also take place throughout the spring, although official dates have not been set. By offering several opportunities for fishermen to attend, and providing it at no cost, Dennehy hopes fishermen see the benefits of taking advantage of the opportunity. Since the program began in 2005, he said, they have trained over 4,000 fishermen.

Nina Groppo, spokesperson for Fishing Partnership Support Services, said there were 15 people registered for the training at the Coast Guard station on High Street as of Oct. 22. While Groppo said she encourages people to apply online for the training Thursday and Friday, she also said people can show up at 7:30 a.m. either day to register at that point. She wants fishermen to know the importance of their health and wellbeing is critical to their careers and their survival on the often unforgiving waters of New England.

“Even if we end up working with just one fisherman and we can save their life with this knowledge, we’ve accomplished something significant,” she said.

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