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Safety at sea in the fisheries sector

This FAO-designed beach landing boat launches off the east coast of India. This beach landing coat is fitted with a 10 hp diesel engine an liftable propulsion (The “BOB-drive”).
Fishing is recognized as one, if not the most, dangerous occupation in the world. Its inherent dangers are exacerbated by poor boat design and substandard materials too often the norm for poor coastal communities.
Asma Ahmed Ali and Mohamed Haybe Ali at work at an FAO boatbuilding training facility in Berbera, Somalia. Asma Ahmed Ali’s mother encouraged her to become a trainee in this boatbuilding programme, which encouraged women to train in this profession. Asma is hoping that her new skills will lead to long-term employment. These boats are being built to FAO safety specifications and Somali fishermen have been amazed to discover these boats are unsinkable.


Fishing continues to be recognized as one, if not the most, dangerous occupation in the world. In 1999, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that there were at least 24 000 deaths annually, the large majority of these on board small vessels.

This estimate was based on a world average figure of 80 lives lost per 100 000 fishers from countries that have an accident reporting and analysis system in place. It seems plausible that the fatality rates in countries for which data is not available might be higher than it is in those that do keep records and the global estimate of fatalities might, therefore, be even higher.

In addition to the emotional toll, the consequences of loss can have devastating effects on the livelihoods of the dependents, particularly in many developing countries: widows have often a low social standing, there is no welfare state to support the family and with lack of alternative sources of income, and the widow and children may face destitution.

According to the FAO State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016, the most recent estimates indicate that 37.9 million people (both full time and part time) were engaged in the primary sector of capture fisheries in 2014. At the same time, the total number of fishing vessels in the world was estimated at about 4.6 million, approximately 90% of which are less than 12 metres in length, i.e. of a size that would mainly by used by the small-scale fisheries sector.

According to Ari Gudmundsson, FAO Senior Fishery Officer, “The fishing industry is often characterized by the lack of a safety culture. There are many factors that have led to this, not only the technical elements of vessel design, construction and equipment, but also a number of social and economic factors.”

“Overcapacity and overfishing of coastal resources are probably amongst the major factors that have reduced the impacts of positive efforts to improve safety at sea in the fisheries sector, primarily due to the high competition to catch limited resources. This has led lead to pressure on the industry to ensure economic survival, which too often can result in cost cutting in vessel maintenance; safety equipment; labour; living and working conditions; and in education and training of fishing vessel personnel. Such cost cutting can lead to under-manning and fatigue that greatly contribute to human error and accidents. "

Since the establishment of FAO in 1945, safety at sea in the fisheries sector has been an important part of the work programme of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the Organization.

The role of FAO in this regard is embedded in the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (the Code), which provides a necessary framework for national and international efforts to ensure sustainable exploitation of aquatic living resources in harmony with the environment.

The Code is explicit in relation to the principle of “safety” in Article 6.17 where it is stressed that “States should ensure that fishing facilities and equipment as well as all fisheries activities allow for safe, healthy and fair working and living conditions and meet internationally agreed standards adopted by relevant international organizations”. 

Article 8.1.5 expands on the principle of safety, requesting States “to ensure that health and safety standards are adopted for everyone in fishing operations and that such standards should not be less than the minimum requirements of relevant international agreements on conditions of work and service”.

This is followed by Article 8.4.1 that refers to fishing operations with the request that “States should ensure that fishing is conducted with due regard to the safety of human life“.

In order to understand more fully the relationship between fisheries management policies and fishing safety, FAO developed a study a few years ago, with the purpose to document globally this relationship and to provide practical guidelines for fisheries managers and safety professionals on how they can work together, to make fishing operations safer. The main finding of this study, which is the first ever global study of its kind, was that fisheries management has both indirect and direct effects on fishing safety.

FAO projects helped Indonesian fishermen to rebuild their fishing boats – and to ‘build them back better’ - after theirs were destroyed in the 2004 tsunami.
Safety at sea is crucial for the fishing industry and the coastal communities who rely on fishing for their employment, livelihoods and food and nutrition security.

The study report, International Commercial Fishing Management Regime Safety Study: Synthesis of Case Reports, which also includes the related 16 case studies that were carried out around the world, was published by FAO in 2016.

Since the early 1960s, there has been an excellent cooperation between the International Maritime Organization (IMO), ILO and FAO on issues related to the safety at health in the fishing industry. This cooperation is based on an agreement acknowledging the three organizations’ respective areas of competence:

FAO –  fisheries in general (which includes areas such as safety in fishing operations and the relationship between fisheries management and safety at sea)

ILO –  labour in the fishing industry (which includes, for example, working and living conditions on board fishing vessels)

IMO –  safety of life, vessels and equipment at sea

This cooperation has led to the development of several voluntary instruments, the main purpose of which is to provide information on safety at sea with a view to promoting the safety of fishing vessels and safety and health of their crews.

Those instruments are not substitute for national laws and regulations but may serve as a guide to those concerned with developing such national laws and regulations as well as developing education and training material related to safety at sea.

The organizations have also cooperated in developing legally binding international instruments to improve safety at sea in the fisheries sector, such as the Cape Town Agreement, the ILO Work in Fishing Convention (no. 188) and the STCW-F Convention.

According to Gudmundsson, “FAO’s Committee on Fisheries (COFI), which is one of FAO’s technical committees led by Member countries have often stressed the importance of this joint work and the link between safety at sea, forced labour and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.  IUU fishing continues to be a major threat to sustainable fisheries worldwide as well as to the stable socio-economic conditions of many of the world’s small-scale fishing communities, in particular in the developing countries.”

There is good quality safety-related information on the Safety-for-fishermen website that can be used by countries to improve their safety at sea in the fisheries sector. The website is maintained by a group of experts and is available in English, French and Spanish.

“We at FAO are pleased with the increased attention to Sustainable Development Goal 14 as the focus of the upcoming Ocean Summit in New York in June,” said Gudmundsson. “Those of us working in the sector are very committed to the environmental protection of our ocean resources. But at the same time, these efforts must be achieved while balancing the need for socioeconomic growth. We can’t forget that people are at the heart of sustainable oceans. The fishing sector is extremely important to support employment generation, create strong livelihoods and ensure food and nutrition security for coastal communities around the world, but especially for those in developing countries. In collaboration with our Member countries and partner organizations, FAO looks forward to increasing our efforts to improve safety at sea in order to protect the lives of fishers and the families and communities that depend on them.”

In Somalia, trainee boat builders learn technique from master builders in an FAO project aimed at building better quality boats for small-scale fishers in Somalia.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are at least 24 000 deaths annually, the large majority of these on board small vessels. FAO has been working with safety at sea issues since its founding, in 1945.
A new FAO design vessel being tested in Somali waters in the Bossaso Harbour after undergoing sea trials. It is named Joorj, named after our colleague Jorge Torrens, the FAO Fisheries officer who died in Somaliland in April 2015.


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