It is one of the most mundane tasks on a fishing boat: tying up the bumper balloons that prevent the vessel from crunching into the wharf when it docks. But for fisherman Mitch MacDonald it proved life-altering.

For 10 years he fastened them with little problem. That is until last May, when his boat pitched unexpectedly and a balloon fell overboard, the rope sawing through his left index finger. 

"It pretty much burnt right through my finger and took the end of my finger off overboard," he said.      

MacDonald has not regained the full use of his hand. The injury cost him thousands of dollars in lost income as he had trouble holding onto things and couldn't work the rest of the fishing season.

Mitch MacDonald

Mitch MacDonald lost part of his finger while fishing last May. (Submitted by Mitch MacDonald)

He is not alone. In 2016 there were 224 injuries on fishing boats, according to the Workers' Compensation Board of Nova Scotia, but good news is the numbers are declining. Six years ago 351 injuries were reported. 

The board said the biggest reason for the improvement comes from a stronger focus being placed on safety by the fishing industry itself and a change in attitude by fishermen.

Most fishing injuries come from overexertion — people trying to lift something that's too heavy or from slip and falls, according to the board.

Those injuries can keep fishermen off the water for a while because it's difficult to ease back into a job that requires so much physical labour.


Pie chart of fisherman injuries

MacDonald has had his share of bumps and bruises. When he first started fishing professionally he was hit in the head with a crab block, a motorized winch used for hauling in crab traps. 

"It took me a year to come back from that one with what happened from the concussion and stuff, all the vertigo and everything that came afterwards."

He managed to walk away from each of his accidents, but others aren't so lucky.

"The fishing industry overall historically has had a high number of fatalities, higher than every other industry pretty much in Nova Scotia," said Shelley Rowan, vice-president of prevention and service delivery with the Workers' Compensation Board.

Fisheries and Oceans

Most injuries suffered by fishermen were caused by overexertion when they tried to lift something that was too heavy. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Twenty-five people have died fishing since 2010 in waters off Nova Scotia, she said.

The most recent was 44-year-old Jimmy Buchanan, who fell overboard while lobster fishing on Jan. 7 about 50 kilometres southeast of Cape Sable Island.

Lessons from Miss Ally

Last week, The Transportation Safety Board released a report into another fishing fatality, the death of Keith Stubbert in 2015. He was hauled overboard when he got caught in a rope.

The report said the crew of the Cock-a-Wit could have done more to prepare for potential emergencies and it urged fishing crews to run safety drills.

ns-miss-ally-overturned-8col

Five Nova Scotia fishermen died on the Miss Ally in February 2013. (Courtesy: Sarah Thorburne)

Rowan said despite those deaths the fishing industry is becoming safer. She said people started taking safety seriously after five fishermen died when the Miss Ally sank southwest of Nova Scotia in 2013. More fishermen are now wearing personal flotation devices as a result, she said.

The Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia is also running programs to make sure fishermen will be safe on the water. 

"We have a program called Are You Ready, making sure people are going through emergency drills, make sure they're prepared with their equipment and know how to use it in the event of an emergency," said Stewart Franck, the executive director of the association. 

Mitch MacDonald said he believes there's no way to prevent some injuries, but others can be avoided. 

"You can't prevent everything, freak accidents and things will always happen, you'll never get rid of it all. Take your time don't be rushing and you can avoid a lot of those accidents."