Improving Commercial Fishing Safety in Norton Sound: Knowledge from Alaska Native Salmon Set Gillnetters

The salmon set gillnet fishery has the highest fatalities in Alaska and fatalities for Alaska Native workers are on the rise. Ten out of fifteen fatalities from commercial fishing vessel disasters in Alaska from 2010-2014 occurred in open skiffs, the type of vessel used in salmon set gillnetting. Emergency equipment such as CO2 cartridges in inflatable PFDs cannot be easily or affordably shipped to remote fishing villages in Norton Sound and commercial fishing safety training there has not been tailored for open skiff fishing or for the unique needs and knowledge of fishermen there. 

Project Overview 

This community participatory project in Unalakleet, an Alaska Native salmon fishing community, aimed to understand factors that influence safety for salmon set gillnetters in Norton Sound. Ten semi-structured interviews were conducted to understand factors that influence safety. The interviews covered questions on how they learned to fish, crew dynamics, boats, equipment, preparation, training, weather, experiences that felt unsafe, challenges, and lessons, stories, or knowledge they wanted share. 

Findings to Date 

  • Most participants learned to fish young from family and safety attitudes and lessons are passed on by family. Fishing is a lifestyle as well as their livelihood.  
  • Setnetters use open skiffs in the 20s-foot range and need to know how to maneuver a small boat in big waves when weather is rough.  
  • PFDs are often taken off because the type III vests that are accessible and affordable are uncomfortable, hot, and pose a major entanglement hazard when working with the net.  
  • Commercial fishing safety training is limited in remote communities and most participants learn safety practices primarily by personal experience and from family knowledge.  
  • Participants reported health benefits such as maintaining good physical shape, but also negative effects such as joint aches, arthritis, financial stress, and difficulty fishing as they age.  
  • Respect of the ocean and awareness of weather and surroundings was reported as the most important strategy to stay safe on the water. 
  • Stories were shared of falls overboard, capsizing, and fatalities and hazards such as being overloaded with fish, entanglement, remoteness, and maneuvering a small boat in big waves. Dangers included changes in climate such as stronger winds and changes in weather patterns and wind direction. 

Next Steps 

AMSEA is in the process of developing a training to be held in Unalakleet, sharing research findings, and distributing 30 inflatable PFDs with training and an assessment of PFD preferences. Research findings and next steps for future education, training, resources, and research will be discussed at the training. Findings will be used in the future to improve awareness, promote solutions, and develop tailored training programs for this population and fishery. 


AMSEA Conducts Marine Safety Research with Unalakleet Setnet Fleet 

Report Improving Commercial Fishing Safety in Norton Sound: Knowledge from Alaska Native Salmon Set Gillnetters.


Knowledge Shared by Alaska Native Commercial Salmon Set Gillnetters in Norton Sound to Reduce Marine Fatalities

Traditional practices blended with modern life jacket technology seen as boosting fishing safety in Alaska


  • Stickers and phone bags with checklists for: Pre-departure steps; Emergency equipment; Hazards to avoid  
  • Strait Science Series lecture to broadcast for Norton Sound residents in collaboration with UAF and Alaska Sea Grant on January 12, 2023. Strait Science | Northwest Campus ( 

Principal Investigator: Leann Fay, PhD, Researcher, Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA)

PNASH Pilot Project 2021-2022