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Typical artisanal fishing boat
Typical artisanal fishing boat

The vast majority of commercial vessels load and discharge cargo in the safety of ports; their main function at sea is transportation. A fishing vessel differs in that it is used to hunt, locate, catch, load (and sometimes discharge), as well as process and conserve cargo at sea, all in variable weather conditions. In effect, it is a place of work and is a very specialized vessel which is intended to perform all these well defined tasks. The size, deck layout, carrying capacity, accommodation, machinery and equipment of fishing vessels are all related to its function in carrying out its planned operations.

Factors which influence the design of a fishing vessel may be grouped under the following headings:

  • The species, location, abundance and dispersion of the fish resources
  • Fishing gear and methods
  • Geographical and climatic characteristics of the fishing area
  • Seaworthiness of the vessel and safety of the crew
  • Handling, processing and stowage of catch
  • Availability of finance
  • Availability of boatbuilding and fishing skills
  • Laws and regulations applicable to fishing vessel design, construction and equipment
  • Choice and availability of construction materials
  • Economic viability

Because of the inherent variations in each of these factors, the diversity of fishing vessels designs operating around the world is enormous, ranging from 2 metre dug out canoes to factory trawlers exceeding 130 metres in length, with trip durations ranging from a few hours to over a year.

Technological developments

The size and autonomy of a fishing vessel is largely determined by its ability to handle, process and store fish in good condition on board, and thus these two characteristics have been greatly influenced by the introduction and utilization of ice and refrigeration machinery. Other technological developments - especially hydraulic hauling machinery, fishfinding electronics and synthetic twines - have also had a major impact on the efficiency and profitability of fishing vessels. In developing countries, fishing operations have been greatly influenced by the introduction and widespread use of the outboard engine.

All these technological developments have not only heavily influenced the design of fishing vessels, but, particularly between 1950-1980, resulted in increased productivity, profitability and competition to the extent that many stocks became fully or overexploited. This situation lead to fisheries management measures which included control of fishing effort, sometimes imposed through length limits on fishing vessels. The effect on fishing vessels was seen with designers attempting to maximize the vessel's fishing capacity while maintaining its length within limits.

Factory trawler
Factory trawler

World fishing fleet

In 2002 the world fishing fleet numbered about four million vessels: about one-third were decked while the remaining two-thirds were undecked (generally less than 10 m in length). Of the latter, 65 percent were not fitted with mechanical propulsion systems. There is little information available for the undecked/non-motorized vessels but it is estimated that Asia accounts for over 80 percent of them.

The average size of decked vessels remains about 20 GT (around 10-15 metres). Those larger than 100 GT (or longer than 24 m) amounted to about 1 percent of the world fishing fleet. China has approximately 50 percent (25 600) of these larger vessels, while no other country has more than 10 percent of this fleet and about 10 countries together account for 80 percent of the total.

The first-hand statistics on fisheries employment are scarce, incomplete and of low quality. According to FAO records, employment in the primary capture fisheries and aquaculture production sectors in 1998 was estimated to have been about 37 million people, including full-time, part-time and occasional workers. About 60% of them are employed in marine fisheries. About two-thirds of these fishermen work onboard fishing vessels of less than 12 m in length, both decked and undecked.

Safety of the vessel and its crew are considered a paramount design consideration. Despite this fact, there is no international instrument in force concerning the safety of fishing vessels. International conventions and agreements awaiting ratification which concern safety at sea are almost exclusively aimed at vessels 24 metres in length and over (which, in terms of numbers, constitute only about one percent of all vessels in the world's fishing fleet), and therefore do not apply to artisanal vessels and transport boats in developing countries. Safety regulations for all fishing vessels are left almost entirely to national discretion.

Code of safety

Fortunately, however, in 1999 IMO invited FAO and ILO to cooperate in the revision of Part B of the Code of Safety for Fishermen and Fishing Vessels, for vessels of 24m in length and over, as well as, the Voluntary Guidelines for the Design, Construction and Equipment for Small Fishing Vessels, that is vessels of 12m in length and over but less that 24 m in length. In addition Part A of the Code was included in the revision.

Tuna purse seiner
Tuna purse seiner
Courtesy of NOAA/J.Cort

The revised Code and the Voluntary Guidelines were approved by IMO in 2004. At the twenty-sixth session of the Committee on Fisheries in March 2005, FAO welcomed the revised Code and Voluntary Guidelines and recommended the early publication by IMO of these documents. The Governing Body of ILO approved the revised texts later the same year.


In December 2004, IMO agreed to include in the work programme of the Sub-Committee on Stability and Load Lines and on Fishing Vessel Safety (SLF) a new high priority item on “Safety of small fishing vessels”. The aim being to develop safety recommendations for decked fishing vessels of less than 12m in length and undecked vessels of any length, bearing in mind that the largest majority of fishing fatalities occur aboard such vessels

In September 2005, the SLF Sub-Committee reviewed a document submitted by FAO that outlines ideas relating to the development of the new safety standards and confirms FAO’s commitment to the exercise. The Sub-Committee established an intersessional correspondence group and approved a timeframe for the development of the safety standards with a target completion date of 2009.

In 2006, it was agreed that the title of the proposed new standards should be: Safety recommendations for decked fishing vessels of less than 12 metres in length and undecked fishing vessels.

The purpose of the safety recommendations is to provide guidelines to competent authorities for the design, construction, equipment and training of the crew of small fishing vessels.

The FAO/ILO/IMO initiative would be timely when it comes into effect since the average age of the world's fleets is increasing and it could be envisaged that there would have to be an increase in new building in the foreseeable future, if this happens there would be at the very least reasonable safety standards to follow.

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