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Vessel caught in a storm at sea
Vessel caught in a storm at sea

Fishing: dangerous occupation

In recent years, little progress has been made in improving the safety of fishers despite attempts by FAO and others to raise awareness of the severity of the problem. Fishing at sea is probably the most dangerous occupation in the world. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 24 000 fatalities occur worldwide per year in capture fisheries.

The consequences of loss of life fall heavily on the dependants. In many developing countries, these consequences can be devastating. Widows often have a low social standing, and where there is no welfare state to support families and no alternative source of income, widows and their children may face destitution.

The safety of fishing vessels and fishers involves several interrelated components, such as the design, construction and equipment of vessels. However, social and economic pressures as well as overcapacity and overfishing of coastal resources are probably the major factors that have negated efforts to improve safety at sea. On fishing boats, particularly small vessels, crews have to work at sea, on deck in all weathers, frequently with hatches open, in order to locate, gather and process their catch. Working conditions and efficiency have improved in many ways with increased mechanization. However, new dangers have arisen and the strain on the crew remains considerable, not least because of reductions in crew size to cut costs.

The persistent view that fishing vessels can only be made safer through:

  • regulations that affect their design, construction and equipment; and
  • the training and certification of crews.

While such interventions may yield effective results, data suggest that this is only sometimes the case. Human behaviour or error is estimated to be responsible for 80 percent of accidents in the fishing industry.

Most accidents occur as a result of poor judgement exercised during fishing operations, brought about by the pressure to increase profits (or simply to remain financially viable). In a situation of overcapacity and overfishing, the competition to catch limited resources is intense. The need for economic survival leads to risk-taking and insufficient crew size.

Role of fisheries management

Fisheries management regimes affect safety. Therefore, improved safety should become an explicit objective of fisheries management, which must ensure that the fishing effort is commensurate with the state of fishery resources. The main lesson learned from FAO’s experiences in implementing safety activities is that recommendations, no matter how sound, do not form an adequate basis for administrations to act or for industry to respond. Despite the development of instruments and guidelines related to the design, construction and equipment of fishing vessels (with more stringent regulations at national level), the accident rate in the fishing industry remains unacceptably high.

Cooperation with ILO

Long-standing cooperation between FAO and the ILO and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has led to the development of guidelines and standards on the safety of fishing vessels and fishers: the FAO/ILO/IMO Code of Safety of Fishermen and Fishing Vessels, Parts A and B; the FAO/ILO/IMO Voluntary Guidelines for the Design, Construction and Equipment of Small Fishing Vessels; and the FAO/ILO/IMO Document for Guidance on Training and Certification of Fishing Vessel Personnel.

Recently, the FAO/ILO/IMO Code of Safety for Fishermen and Fishing Vessels (Parts A and B) and the FAO/ILO/IMO Voluntary Guidelines have been revised. Currently, FAO is working with the ILO and IMO to develop new safety standards for small fishing vessels not covered by the revised code and guidelines. The provisional title of these new standards is Safety recommendations for decked fishing vessels of less than 12 metres in length and undecked fishing vessels. The target completion date for this work, which also includes the development of guidelines for the implementation of Part B of the Code of Safety for Fishermen and Fishing Vessels, the Voluntary Guidelines and the Safety Recommendations, is 2010.

Raising awareness

The need for awareness raising among governments, fishing-vessel owners, fishers, boatbuilders and other stakeholders of the safety issue will grow. It is not unlikely that consumers will put pressure on the fishing industry and on governments to improve health and safety conditions on board fishing vessels. This is related to their concerns on overfished stocks, the safety and quality of fish products, environmental protection, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

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