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The sea can be a dangerous environment
The sea can be a dangerous environment
Courtesy of the US Coast Guard

Fishing: the most dangerous occupation


Fishing at sea is probably the most dangerous occupation in the world. Data from those countries that collect accurate accounts show that occupational fatalities in their fishing industries far exceed their national average. For example, in the United States of America the fatality rate at an average of 160 per 100 000 is 25-30 times the national average; in Australia, the fatality rate for fishers is 143 per 100 000 compared with 8.1 per 100 000 nationally. Not only are the figures high, but there is little evidence to suggest they are decreasing. In the United Kingdom there were approximately 7 194 UK-registered fishing vessels in 2000 (end-December 2000 figure).

That year 533 vessels were involved in accidents and incidents that were reported to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB). Thirty-nine fishing vessels were lost (0.54%of the total fleet) and there were 32 fatalities. These are the highest annual rates recorded since the MAIB database was launched. In the United States the numbers of fatalities increased in the Alaska region.

However, very few countries are able to supply such data; although the members of IMO decided that the collection and analysis of statistical information on casualties, including fishing vessels and fishers, should be prepared on an annual basis, they acknowledged in 1999 that there has been a very limited response.

FAO estimates that of the 36 million engaged in fishing and fish-farming, roughly 15 million fishers are employed aboard decked and undecked fishing vessels operating in marine capture fisheries, of whom more than 90 per cent are working on vessels less than 24 metres in length. It seems plausible that the fatality rate in countries for which information is not available might be higher than those mentioned above. Thus, the number of global fatalities might be considerably higher than the figure of 24 000 deaths world wide per year estimated by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Overview of the problem

The evolution of the fishing industry over the centuries has been accompanied by the development of skills and experience in vessel design, construction and equipment, as well as in fishing operations and safety at sea. Technical developments drastically accelerated this evolutionary process; widespread use of outboard engines, the use of hydraulics for hauling gear and catches, synthetic nets and lines, fish finding electronics and refrigeration equipment led to massive leaps forward in productivity and profitability. Under the free-for-all access to fisheries together with the market's insatiable demand for fish, the harvesting capacity of the fleets was bound sooner or later to reach or even exceed the maximum yield of the fishable stocks.

Excessive fishing effort; increased competition; reduced profitability; economies in vessel maintenance, equipment and manpower; fatigue; recklessness; fisheries management measures (which do not take sufficient account of the human element or fishermen safety into consideration); diversified fishing operations unaccompanied by training, traditional experience and skills; these are some of the factors which have resulted in fishing being the most dangerous occupation in the world.

The consequences of loss of life fall heavily on the dependents. In developing countries, these consequences can be devastating: widows have a low social standing, there is no welfare state to support the family and with lack of alternative sources of income, the widow and children may face destitution.

Possible solutions

Many developing countries face the need to design and implement a system to manage their fisheries and may look for external advice and aid to further their goals. FAO is the obvious UN agency to promote a holistic approach to fisheries management; FAO will continue to advocate the inclusion of safety at sea as an integral part of the proposed management regime. This will be reflected in its active use of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries to promote and monitor issues pertaining to safety at sea. Effective approaches to safety at sea everywhere in the world and at all levels rely on three lines of defence:

  1. Prevention (the most reliable and cost-effective component): Suitable equipment, training, experience, information and judgement to avoid getting into trouble in the first place.
  2. Survival and self-rescue: The equipment, training and attitudes necessary to survive and effect self-rescue when things start to go wrong.
  3. Search and Rescue (SAR) (the most costly and least reliable of the three levels). Systems of alert, search, and rescue which are called upon when the first two lines of defence have failed.

There are a number of areas where improvements can be made at the national level with FAO assistance to improve these three lines of defence: provision and analysis of data identifying the cause of accident; education and training of trainers, extensionists, fishermen and inspectors; improved fisheries management, safety regulation and enforcement; increased collaboration between fishermen, fishermen's organisations and government.


Measures to improve safety can only be truly effective where the motivation to apply them exists. To establish and maintain such a culture of safety is a never-ending task that demands the participation of the fishermen themselves and their families, the boat-owners, the legislators and the community at large. There are many examples of individuals interested in safety at sea who formed fishermen self-help groups or other NGOs and established a fruitful cooperation with the authorities to promote safety in their communities.

In those countries where appropriate regulations, enforcement and training are in place, there has been a measurable (though not always significant) reduction in the annual number of fatalities over the last 15 years. Although these countries account for less than five percent of the world's fishers, they demonstrate that results are achievable. Recognition of the issue of safety at sea as a major and continuing problem is the first step towards its mitigation. It is considered that responsibility for safety at sea should be borne by both administrators and fishermen, and similarly that effort and assistance is shared between those two groups to ensure an effective partnership enabling a safer profession.

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