A gillnet drum in the sunset. (Photo/KFSK)

Researchers from New York state were in Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, and Cordova last week gathering information on salmon gillnetters as part of their study on sleep deprivation. 

The research organization is the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety. It’s a non-profit that’s funded through the Centers for Disease Control to come up with solutions for work related issues with fishermen, farmers, and forestry workers.

Currently, they are working on the relationship between commercial fishermen’s sleep and health.

The research team is on the tail end of their data gathering. They’ve already gathered information from scallop fishermen in Massachusetts, Dungeness fishermen in Oregon, and salmon gillnetters in Alaska. They’re studying inshore lobster fishermen as the control group because they just go out on day trips.

Julie Sorensen is the Director of the research center. She says they hope to finish analyzing the data this summer and be able to share some of the findings in the fall.

She spoke with KFSK’s Angela Denning while she was in Petersburg and says there is a lot of research on shift workers like truckers but nearly nothing on fishermen.

Julie Sorensen: Does having an erratic sleep schedule affect their ability to get good sleep when they’re not working? Or, years from now, if they’ve had erratic sleep schedules, you know, in their past as they get older, is it harder to sleep? And then how does that affect their cognitive decline? Does it affect their memory? Does it affect other aspects of their health? So we’re looking at cardiac health, we’re looking at kidney function, we’re looking at many, many different things. And I think what we hope to do is we’ll look at associations between, you know, some of the things that they’ve experienced and their health outcomes. And that’ll be a basis for kind of doing a deeper dive in the years ahead. You know how those two things intersect. But, you know, I think through this initial round, what we hope to do is take that data back to the fishing community, and say, well, this is what we’ve learned so far. So now, what do YOU think is the next logical step?

Angela Denning: And so [you’re studying] specifically, gillnetters?

Juile Sorensen: Yes, yeah, salmon gillnetters. And the reason for that is in our work with partners like AMSEA, they felt like, oh, probably salmon gillnetters have one of the most erratic sleep schedules. So that might be a good group to focus on. I think what we’re learning through the research is that the fisheries are really fluid. So if somebody might fish for salmon, be a salmon gillnetter but then switch to another fishery. And so it’s really hard to kind of say, you know, that person just does that. So that’s one of the things we’re learning in the research.

Angela Denning: What are some of the questions that you’re asking the fisherman that you see?

Julie Sorensen: So we’re asking them to talk about sleep schedules, work schedules, we’re asking them to talk about nutrition, how they caffeinate, strategies they develop to stay awake, strategies they’ve developed that helps them sleep when they have time to sleep. Questions, like, you know, what are some associations you see between your sleep and your health? What are things that you worry about in relation to your health and sleep? So those are some of the questions were asking. Some of the additional data we’re collecting are things like BMI, vision, hearing, glucose levels, cardiac health, respiratory health, those are all collected as part of the health assessment. There’s increasing research on how sleep is so essential for your brain health, your cognitive health. And so you know, sleep is important. You develop waste products throughout the day, and your downtime, your sleep time is your brain’s time to kind of clean out that waste, and kind of renew for the next day. It’s also an important part of your ability to remember things. So, you know, when you’re going throughout your day, and you’re experiencing different things, those things get stored in your hypothalamus. And then when you sleep, they get transferred back to the neocortex process, they’re brought back to the hypothalamus. So you know, those stages in your sleep cycle, light, sleep, deep sleep, REM, those are all important for processing memory. And so I think people feel like, oh, you know, I can do without it. I, you know, learn to do without it this long. But I think more and more, we’re understanding how important sleep is. But what we hope to do is, once we analyze the data that we’ve been collecting, we want to share that back with the fishing community and participants. And one way we’d like to do that is to have a webinar or a training session that would be live and interactive. So we can say, well, this is what we learned. And there are some solutions that we think might work for your specific fishery. And then it also gives people a chance to ask questions or ask for clarification, because sometimes research can be very confusing, right? Like as researchers, we talk about an association, so this exposure may be associated with this outcome. It doesn’t mean that that caused that. But, you know, it’s possible. And so we have to do more research. So that just gives us an opportunity to kind of explain the results in a way that’s accurate and that people can understand.

The Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety also produces a fishermen’s podcast called “Fishing Forward”.