Preparation, response, and resilience in fishing communities

How do communities, specifically fishing communities, cope with the news of a fishing fatality?

What happens first?

Who is involved?

Who should be involved?

backus-15How does the process move from first responders to support for the families involved?

What are the short-term and long-term needs?

The close-knit fishing communities of Gloucester and New Bedford have long had an informal process to help their communities cope when tragedy strikes.

Several years ago, the Fishing Partnership Support Services (FP) asked Madeleine Hall-Arber of the MIT Sea Grant Program and me to undertake a study that would document the approach these fishing communities have to tragedy so that the lessons learned could be shared with other communities, both fishing and non-fishing.

The idea of RESCUE – Responding to Emergencies at Sea and to Communities under Extreme Stress – was launched.

The research team, FP staff, and interns collected accounts of fishing fatalities and casualties in the Northeast from 1998 to 2010 using the Coast Guard database, as well as local and regional newspaper articles.

We gathered published articles from the research literature on community resilience.

Meeting with high profile community leaders in Gloucester and New Bedford, we developed a list of stakeholders to interview and wrote open-ended interview questions for survivors of mishaps, families of deceased fishermen, community leaders, and Coast Guard responders.

Transcripts of the 30 interviews of stakeholders conducted by the research team were analyzed using NVIVO, a computer program that helps social science researchers identify recurring themes.

Hall-Arber then carefully crafted the emerging themes into an outline of the best practices cited by our interviewees, highlighting particularly apt advice.

The resulting RESCUE Manual is an incredible compilation – not only of how to prepare for an emergency at sea, and how to respond – but also how to manage and cope over the long haul.


Fishermen and families

Some sections will seem familiar to experienced fishermen, serving as a reminder of best practices.  But the sections about how families should prepare may well present new ideas and material.

For example, pages 9-10 note the information that families should gather about each fishing trip (see also the Search and Rescue Information Sheets in the Appendix), including Coast Guard phone numbers (also in the Appendix).

In addition, this section points out that families on shore need to know where all the household documents are kept (insurance policies, mortgages and loans, bank and credit card account documents, wills, car titles, etc.), and have password access to phone, computer, and online bank accounts, etc.

Family members also need to know where safe deposit boxes and their keys are, and have names and contact information for attorneys, doctors, pastors, insurance agents and, of course, other family members who will need to be notified in the event of a serious injury or fatality.

These suggestions truly are valuable for all community members, regardless of whether or not they fish, but are often overlooked because everyone is “so busy.”


Community response

A community is more likely to be resilient when it is prepared for the unthinkable, particularly if resources and the trusting relationships are already in place.

The RESCUE Manual (pages 15-17) describes the importance of having face-to-face meetings and open lines of communication across the community before needing to jump into action in an emergency.

The idea of a Response/Crisis Team is suggested as a way to develop an infrastructure that can pull together the community resources.

The breadth of community resources needed and available is truly eye-opening.

A life lost impacts every facet of living for the survivors:  From bread on the table, to bereavement, and everything in between.


Recovery and resources

After a full chapter describing emergency response roles of the Coast Guard and the community, RESCUE turns to recovery (of the body), and resources for the family including financial, legal, social, spiritual, and counseling services.

An extensive 24-page list of resources for Gloucester and New Bedford/Fairhaven is provided in the Appendix.

The Appendix also contains a Maintenance Check List by Fred Mattera, first published in CFN Feb. 2015; a crew check list; and a revision of my FISH SAFE article on the Lady of Grace icing tragedy that appeared in CFN Jan. 2015.

The booklet concludes with an article, “Coping With an Accident at Sea,” contributed by Sea Grant Alaska; a review of the resilience literature by Fishing Partnership intern Bernadette Stadler; acknowledgements; and eight lessons learned from at-sea incidents.

A limited number of draft copies of the RESCUE Manual will be available at the Harvard vendor booth at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, March 4-5.

Printed copies will soon be available to vessels in Massachusetts.

And the entire RESCUE Manual will be available on the web through MIT Sea Grant, Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and the Fishing Partnership Support Services.

We hope you will seek out the RESCUE Manual, and we welcome your comments and suggestions.


Ann Backus, MS, is the director of outreach for the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health in Boston, MA.  She may be reached by phone at (617) 432-3327 or by e-mail at <>.


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