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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's consider a different danger on the sea. Commercial fishing is the nation's deadliest job, as you may know from the reality show "Deadliest Catch."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEADLIEST CATCH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Man overboard. Man overboard. Man overboard.

INSKEEP: Man overboard is what the crab fishermen are shouting as they work on Alaska's Bering Sea, although it turns out their catch is not the deadliest of all. The most dangerous fish to harvest are Northeast cod, haddock and other ground fish. If you fish New England cod, you are 37 times more likely to die on the job than a police officer. Despite that, the industry is slow to adopt promising safety measures.

Curt Nickisch has this story, part of an investigation that involves the Center for Public Integrity, NPR News and WBUR in Boston.

CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: Fred Mattera remembers the day that he decided to change the commercial fishing industry. It was 2001. He was fishing more than 100 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

FRED MATTERA: There was a vessel. They came on the radio and started screaming: Guys are down in the hold. Guys down in the hold. They're foaming.

NICKISCH: Poisonous fumes had built up. Mattera raced to the scene, but he didn't have the training to help the fishermen in trouble. Two survived, but one died. The 21-year-old was the son of a close friend.

MATTERA: And when I got back to port and went to the house, it was real - it was very difficult. You know, because you get there, and he's not here. And I promised, I just said to them, I promised you that we will need to change the culture. We will make this a safer industry.

NICKISCH: Emergency calls to the Coast Guard chronicle just how hazardous it is to work with heavy machinery while you're rolling over the frigid Atlantic.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mayday, mayday. This is us, Susan C...

NICKISCH: Between 2000 and 2009, off the East Coast, 165 commercial fishermen died, with the highest death rate in the Northeast. Seventy percent of the deaths in the ground fish and scallop industry followed vessel disasters, like fire or sinking. Most of the rest were caused by onboard injuries or falling overboard.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I had him at the rail earlier. I couldn't haul him up, and he went down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Roger, sir. Did he have a life jacket on?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Negative.

NICKISCH: Not one of those who fell overboard and drowned in the Northeast was wearing a life jacket. Despite those losses, fishing culture and spotty federal oversight thwart attempts to make the most dangerous workplace in America safer. The Coast Guard mandates seaworthiness inspections of passenger ferries and other commercial vessels, but not fishing boats.

JACK KEMERER: And we've asked for, requested authority do inspections on vessels.

NICKISCH: Jack Kemerer is the chief of the Fishing Vessels Division of the Coast Guard. He says Congress hasn't given that power.

KEMERER: So I can't answer why or why not. But, you know, it's not that we haven't asked for it in the past.

NICKISCH: Many fisherman aren't asking for it. They don't want more supervision. Some still see themselves as the last cowboys on the ocean: live by the sea, die by the sea.

BILL AMARU: Hi, Sherry(ph). Yeah, we just finished unloading. We're pulling away from the dock.

NICKISCH: Bill Amaru is mooring his boat on Cape Cod, after an overnight trip fishing for cod and sole. Strict federal rules limit how much ground fish he can catch. So Amaru doesn't like the idea of the feds inspecting his boat, too.

AMARU: You know, if there's a resentment to these kinds of rules, it's based on the overall huge number of regulations that have come down on our industry in the last decade, so much federal nanny state, kind of telling us how to operate when I think I have a pretty good understanding of what I need to do to keep safe.

NICKISCH: A recent national law does require boat owners like Amaru to prove that their safety equipment is up to date. It forced a lot of fishermen to replace decades-old, decrepit life rafts and to put new batteries in their emergency signal beacons. But just because they now have working safety gear doesn't mean they know how to use it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SPLASH)

NICKISCH: Earlier this month, a handful of fisherman took part in a self-organized training in Point Judith, Rhode Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SPLASH)

NICKISCH: They practiced abandoning ship, wearing orange-red survival suits. Insulated, watertight and buoyant, the body suits made a few of the guys feel claustrophobic in the water, and they thrashed about anxiously.

MATTERA: Get your panic out now. Get it all out now.

NICKISCH: Veteran fisherman Fred Mattera is teaching these guys how to be let the suit save them. They paddle over to a life raft and climb in. When it's all over, they look winded.

Boat captain Norbert Stamps says the fair-weather training opened his eyes.

NORBERT STAMPS: There's a holy-crap issue to it. You know, you jump in. You kind of realize that, you know, this isn't fun and games. This is real serious stuff. And you've got to practice, and you've got to know what to expect. And that's in good situations, with the water relatively warm and everything else.

JENNIFER LINCOLN: I believe that fisherman want to be safe. They just want things to be practical. They want the solutions to really address the hazards that exist.

NICKISCH: Jennifer Lincoln works for the federal government in Alaska, where fisherman, state regulators and the Coast Guard have worked together to make fishing there less deadly. For instance, Bering Sea crabbing boats now transport fewer crab pots when they head to out to sea. That new load limit helps prevent capsizing. Fatalities fell by 60 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEA GULLS)

NICKISCH: That's the kind of success Fred Mattera wants to replicate in the Northeast, the home of today's deadliest catch. It's been 10 years since he was unable to save that 21-year-old son of a close friend. Since then, Mattera's trained hundreds of fisherman in port. But he's not done.

MATTERA: I'm just a fisherman. That's what I love and that's what I did for a long time. I promised a family we'd make a difference. Till I'm still breathing, you know, that's what we're going to strive to do.

NICKISCH: He says there's a long way to go. But Fred Mattera hopes that someday, the deadliest job in America will only be as dangerous as it has to be, and not one bit more.

For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Take a trip to our website, npr.org, and you can see the working life of commercial fisherman in the Northeast. You can also learn more about efforts to improve safety.

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