Jul 24, 2011 12:30 PM by Chris Welty
BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) - Mang Vo wanted to make a lasting
impression on his shrimping safety class when he learned many of
the fishermen didn't know how to make a proper mayday call.
After some told him they use cell phones during emergencies at
sea, he pulled an old cell from his pocket and smashed it against a
"You need to pick up the radio," Vo said, noting that calling
relatives over the phone doesn't bring help as quickly.
But for many shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico, mayday calls via
the radio have been a difficult if not impossible task for one
simple reason: They don't know English.
The language barrier has been the focus of a government-backed
training program designed to help Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking
fishermen communicate with other shrimpers and make America's
deadliest fishery a safer place.
During a decade that saw 55 Gulf shrimp fishermen killed at sea,
researchers and federal safety regulators in 2004 began looking
into the safety shortfalls in Gulf shrimping crews, including a
lack of radio skills and basic rescue training.
But as the Gulf shrimping season convenes, officials face the
recurring challenge of convincing these crews to participate in the
training. So far the program has reached about 500 of the several
thousand Gulf shrimp fishermen.
Researchers hope increased participation in the coming years
will help tear down a language barrier that has left some crews
unprepared to save lives.
"These fishermen think they're made of steel, nothing can
happen to them," said Gilbert Gallardo, a U.S. Coast Guard
commercial fishing vessel safety examiner. "They're old salts."
The Coast Guard has worked with researchers from the University
of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler to identify problem areas
after surveys showed many shrimp fishermen in Texas and Louisiana
didn't speak English fluently.
Among some shrimp fleets in Galveston and elsewhere experts
estimate more than half of fishermen speak Vietnamese, while
farther south in Brownsville and Port Isabel most speak Spanish. So
researchers designed signs using universal images to explain
dangers of injury on board shrimp boats. They brought in
experienced seamen who speak Vietnamese and Spanish to convey the
safety lessons at workshops. And later this year they plan to
release an interactive CD in English, Spanish and Vietnamese
explaining how to make mayday calls.
Vo, a Vietnamese-speaking merchant mariner, helped with the
Vietnamese version of that computer-based training tool and
translates at safety workshops in Galveston.
Leonard Leyva, who oversees a fleet of 20 shrimp boats at ZIMCO
Marine in Brownsville, helped make the Spanish version of the
Leyva stood at the end of a long conveyer belt at the ZIMCO
docks last week watching crate after crate of shrimp come off the
Carmelita. A crew in white rubber boots heaved the crates from the
boat's freezer below deck. Huge nets hung slack from long
outriggers, locked vertically for the trip into port.
With the low rails surrounding the deck and inevitable
slipperiness, the dangers of a crewmember falling overboard were
clear. Leyva said most crew members don't wear life jackets because
they interfere with work and if someone goes overboard they may be
unnoticed because cries for help are drowned out by the engine and
"It's easy for something to go wrong," Leyva said. "It
doesn't take but a split second."
Of the 55 Gulf shrimping deaths between 2000 and 2009, 29 were
fishermen who fell overboard, none of whom were wearing life
jackets, according to a study by the National Institute for
Occupational Safety and Health. Twelve were onboard injuries,
commonly involving the heavy-duty winches that haul the nets.
And yet many fishermen, captains and crew, were ignorant of
basic safety protocols, researchers found. Gallardo and others
taught how to throw flotation rings to fishermen who fall into the
water and how to radio for help. Radio communication in particular
was an intimidating challenge for those without a firm grasp of
English. Many said they recognized when their boat was called over
the radio, but did not answer because they feared they wouldn't
understand what came next, Gallardo said.
Gallardo is one of six such Coast Guard safety inspectors
between Mobile, Ala. and Brownsville. He has 200 square miles to
cover where there are about 564 boats licensed. Of those, about 200
have accepted his offer of a free safety examination where he
checks vessels for safety equipment.
Gallardo, who is based in Texas City, learned early on that he
needed to spend more time on boats where there was a language
barrier. He got by with gesturing and a simple vocabulary and added
pictures to a book of regulations that had been all English text.
He even picked up a little Vietnamese, which always garners
chuckles from fishermen.
When he started giving safety workshops, sometimes only one
fisherman would show up. But since he partnered with the
researchers, participation is on the rise. The center has more
resources for translation and the free caps, T-shirts and key
chains that lure fishermen to class.
"I'm getting questions now like when's the next training,"