WSG News Blog

WSG workshops give Makah Tribal fishermen crucial training to stay safe at sea

May 11, 2023

Sarah Fisken, marine operations specialist, has been working with the Tribe for more than 30 years

Makah Fleet Blessing

Blessing of the fleet. Photo by Cheryl Sones.

At the dawn of each spring, the Makah Tribe blesses its fleet in Neah Bay to support tribal fishermen and their families. They convene at the Makah Marina to pray in their language.

The intention behind the ceremony is to cast a safe fishing season for those going out to an unpredictable and merciless sea. To further empower fishermen, the Tribe collaborates with Washington Sea Grant (WSG) on workshops that teach skills they need to protect themselves and their crewmates.

“Participation is a big deal. Everyone wants to get in on it,” said Cheryl Sones, Makah Fisheries management coordinator. “Every topic covered in the workshops is something that could happen out there, anytime. They know what to do in case an accident happens.”

Sones and Sarah Fisken, WSG marine operations specialist, have been working closely for 30 years. They sat down together for an interview to reflect on a decades-long endeavor.

Fisken first met people with the Makah Tribe in the early 1970s after a storm had exposed preserved wooden artifacts at the Ozette Village Archeological Site. She went down to the site the summer of 1972 and after that spent many summers and a couple of winters digging there until the site was closed in 1980.

“I became friends with the Makah fisheries manager, and he wanted some safety training for their fisherman,” said Fisken, who was herself a commercial fisherman. “So that is how it started. Now, we go out there every year and do a first aid class and safety at sea class.”

Fisken teams up with instructors Art Cole and Joe Petersen to put on the WSG-sponsored workshops. The classes reduce risks for fishermen with port-based, U.S. Coast Guard-certified training in emergency preparedness, fire response, cold-water rescue, first aid and other safety measures, using the latest equipment and procedures.

Training with Makah Tribe

Fishermen try on suits during workshop . Photo by Cheryl Sones.

Topics covered in First Aid at Sea courses include patient assessment, hypothermia, near-drowning, shock, trauma, burns, fractures, choking, immobilization and important contents for first aid kits. WSG experts also train commercial fishermen and charter boat operators how to conduct safety drills at sea. Fishermen have to go through first aid training every two years to keep their certification, and Fisken recommends they refresh their safety training every five years.

These courses meet the requirements of the Commercial Fishing Safety Act, which mandates that each member of a crew has a drill conductor certification that proves they are trained.

Since the mid-1990s, WSG safety training classes on Washington’s Puget Sound, Pacific coast and the Columbia River have markedly reduced fatalities in several fisheries. The Makah Tribe is no exception. Most of their fisherman experience minor injuries onboard like head bumps or lacerations caused by large hooks.

“We have a longline fishery here in Neah Bay for black cod and halibut. Sometimes one of the guys will get a hook clear through their hand,” said Sones. “With the training courses offered, they know what to do.”

Fisken added, “[The course] teaches them how to get the hook out, which is tricky because it has a barb on one end and you don’t want to do more damage.”

Over the years, hundreds of fishermen from the Makah Tribe have attended workshops to learn first aid and safety skills or to keep their skills sharp so they have the ability to quickly respond to various situations. While the Tribe prays for a safe fishing season ahead, they are ready for anything that may come their way.


Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, helps people and marine life thrive through research, technical expertise and education supporting the responsible use and conservation of coastal ecosystems. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.

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