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DEM Environmental Police Warn Anglers about the Dangers of Cold Water, Urge them to Wear a Life Jacket when Fishing

PROVIDENCE With the trout fishing season opening on Saturday, April 9, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is reminding anglers particularly those fishing from a boat to exercise personal safety precautions while in pursuit of their first trout of the season. Anyone going out in a boat, canoe, kayak, or vessel of any kind should wear a life jacket to help ensure they enjoy a safe Opening Day fishing experience.

After a long winter, even on a warm day, water temperatures can linger in the low- to mid-50s. A boating accident is five times more likely to be fatal if the water is colder than 60 degrees, according to United States Coast Guard (USCG) statistics. USCG notes that eight out of 10 boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet long. Using small, unstable vessels like canoes and kayaks in water that's deceivingly cold puts anglers in a very dangerous situation. Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed, and alcohol use rank as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.

"Although the weather is getting warmer, it's important for boaters and anglers to remember that waterways are still cold and rivers are running high and fast," said Lieutenant Michael Schipritt, boating safety coordinator for DEM's Division of Law Enforcement. "Immersion into cold water can cause life-threatening hypothermia the abnormal lowering of the body's core temperature. Please dress accordingly, wear your life jacket, and check your boat and safety equipment before heading out to enjoy your Opening Day."

USCG statistics show that:

- Drowning was the reported cause of death in 75% of all boating fatalities.

- Of those who drowned, 86% were not wearing life jackets.

- Kayakers and canoeists accounted for 24% of all deaths reported.

- Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.

- Where the level of instruction was known, 77% of deaths occurred where the operator did not receive any boating safety instruction.

Victims who experience an unexpected fall overboard suffer initial cold-water shock in the first minute, which involuntarily causes them to take a series of big breaths, called hyperventilation. If their head is underwater, they can inhale more than a quart of water and drown immediately. People lucky enough to keep their head above water will continue hyperventilating as their blood pressure jumps. If they can't control their breathing within 60 seconds, they'll suffer numbness, muscle weakness or even fainting, which leads to drowning. A person with heart disease may experience sudden death due to cardiac arrest.

A victim who survives the first minute of cold shock and hyperventilation will progress to the second stage, called "cold incapacitation" or swimming failure. Within about 10 minutes, rapid cooling of the extremities causes muscle stiffening so a person will no longer be able to perform the simplest tasks, such as swimming, holding onto a floating object, or putting on a life jacket. Even yelling for help can be difficult in this scenario.

Hypothermia is the third stage. There is a common misconception that it sets in almost immediately after a person lands in cold water. However, a victim won't start to become hypothermic for 30 minutes. Severe hypothermia can take an hour or more to set in, depending on the water temperature, one's body mass, clothing, the amount of struggling, and other factors. A body core temperature of 95 degrees is considered hypothermic, loss of consciousness occurs at about 86 degrees, and death is imminent when the core temperature drops below 82 degrees. Unless a person is wearing a life jacket, drowning will occur long before severe hypothermia sets in.

Most boating fatalities are the result of capsizing or falls overboard, not collisions between boats running at high speed. Experts recommend that people who are thrown into the water should stay with the boat, even if they cannot get back in. They are more likely to be seen by potential rescuers if they are next to a boat. A person should only swim for shore if wearing a life jacket, if the likelihood of rescue is low, or if they are close to shore and aren't able to climb back into or on top of the boat. The Coast Guard suggests that anglers wear a life jacket from the time they enter the boat until they return to shore. Old-fashioned, bulky orange jackets have been replaced with innovative options such as inflatable life jackets, allowing mobility and flexibility for activities like boating and fishing.

Boating safety education has helped reduce boating accidents in Rhode Island, and it is the law. In Rhode Island, successful completion of a boating safety course is required for all boaters born after January 1, 1986, who operate a boat with a motor greater than 10 horsepower, and for all operators, regardless of age, of personal watercraft (jet ski). For more information on boating safety topics, please visit DEM's state-approved online boating safety study course website. Contact DEM's Division of Law Enforcement at 401-222-3070 for the home study packet. If you choose the online course or the home study option, you will be required to take our free certification exam.

For more information on DEM programs and services, visit Follow DEM on Facebook, Twitter (@RhodeIslandDEM), or Instagram (@RhodeIslandDEM).

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  • Department or agency: Department of Environmental Management
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  • Release date: 04-08-2022

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