Managing the Risk of Rapid Vessel Capsize: An Exploratory Study of Sensemaking among Oregon Dungeness Crab Commercial Fishing Captains

Christy L. Forrester

Major Professor: Katherine E Rowan, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Xiaoquan Zhao, Christopher Clarke, Gary L. Kreps

Research Hall, #91
July 24, 2019, 01:30 PM to 03:30 PM


Dungeness crab commercial fishing is a tough, dangerous business.  Oregon Dungeness crab fishermen face some of the most hazardous working conditions in the United States, contributing to a fatality rate several times higher than the national average for the commercial fishing industry.  Vessel disasters, including rapid capsize events, account for over half of these fatalities. Beyond the harsh and often unpredictable marine environment characterized by cold temperatures, strong winds, and large waves, there are many complexities associated with managing commercial fishing operations in the Oregon Dungeness crab fishery. Current descriptive reports and statistical analyses have documented causal and contributing factors for capsize incidents; however, these factors alone do not consider occupational culture, including the ongoing communicative and social interaction that may critically influence the environment through which action is or is not undertaken, decisions are considered, and outcomes are determined.  In the high-risk world of commercial fishing, captains face a wide array of complex and uncertain situations related to fishing operations, crisis, and safety.

Weick’s model of organizing maps a three-stage process through which organizational members engage in interconnected communication practices to make sense of complex risk (enactment), select strategies for preventing and responding to crisis events (selection), and incorporate what was learned from these communication cycles for guiding future prevention and response as a form of organizational intelligence (retention). This study employed a qualitative approach to explore the perspectives of the master of the vessel and key cultural influence, Oregon Dungeness crab commercial fishing captains.  Specifically, I examined the equivocality, or multiple possible interpretations, of vessel safety issues (occupational culture, unpredictability, complexity, and precedent) to understand how captains understand the risks (enactment) and determine how to avoid and respond to potential capsize events (selection).  Finally, I explored how this information may be stored as rules for future application (retention, as organizational intelligence).  Fieldwork included document review, participant observation in a commercial fishing safety course, observation of fishing operations at sea, and site visits to commercial fishing ports along the Oregon coast, followed by sixteen semi-structured, in-depth interviews with Oregon Dungeness crab commercial fishing captains at two sites. Interviews were analyzed using a modified constant comparison method.

To determine how to prevent rapid vessel capsize, captains employed a combination of rules (use of early warning systems, such as alarms) to manage the known risks, and communication cycles (e.g., talk to crew, U.S. Coast Guard) to manage unexpected or emerging risks.  Many captains saw constant teaching of the crew about safety and encouraging communication “up”; that is, telling the captain when something is wrong, were essential for safety, though a few relied on more one-way, authoritarian approaches to communication with crew.  As there is often little time to respond in capsize events, captains described response efforts largely driven by emergency procedure-based rules learned through on-the-job and drill conductor training opportunities.  However, if time allowed, captains engaged in communication cycles, or repeated efforts to investigate and solve problems (e.g., involving the crew to investigate a smell of burning wood when there was no wood in sight, nor evidence of smoke).

Future work should examine whether training and experience help captains and crew to see when reliance on a rule is the best way to manage imminent danger and when use of communication cycles to consider multiple sources of danger and the best way to address them is most appropriate.  Further analysis of possible gaps between how safety and risk are perceived and communicated and what quantitative assessments say about causes of mortality and morbidity in Dungeness crab fishing are warranted.