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V. Safety at sea in developing countries

In many developing countries, the fisheries are low budget and of low national priority because they are not considered a significant part of the country's economy.47 Consequently, funds to improve the conditions of the fisheries are not readily available.

The problems encountered in safety at sea by fishermen in the developing countries, particularly on small islands, are also quite different from those encountered in developed ones. The main differences can be listed as follows:

Although the basic problems of safety are common to all developing countries, the local conditions vary considerably. Many of the most basic problems resulting in high loss of life can be solved at low cost; the challenge is to educate the responsible authorities to the existence of these problems, and to translate recognition of the problems into effective remedial action. Public safety awareness campaigns, programmes for education/training and improving the availability of lifesaving aids, and the organization of SAR, need to be tailored specifically for each country.


The bulk of the fleet in the developing countries is made up of small, often undecked and unmotorized vessels. As Figure 3 shows, more than four out of five undecked vessels are either in Asia or Africa.48 These proportions did not change markedly during the dramatic increase in the undecked fleet, which grew by about 60% or one million vessels from 1970 to 1995.

Figure 3. Numbers of undecked fishing vessels by continent

Figure 4 shows that only one out of five undecked vessels in Africa is powered by engine, while in Asia, one out of three undecked vessels are motorized. In Europe and North America, undecked and unmotorized fishing vessels are very rare.

Figure 4. Numbers of undecked fishing vessels powered and not-powered by engines by continent


Often, vessels are built by untrained builders who copy traditional or imported craft but, because of cost-cutting practices, inadequate building material and lack of experience, they end up building vessels that are basically unsound. Frequently, these vessels do not comply with national regulations (where they exist) because of lack of enforcement. This is related to the competence of vessel inspection services (where they exist). Most of the inspectors have not had any training in the conduct of condition surveys of vessels of any sort at the level normally required for classification or insurance purposes. Furthermore, very few of the individual inspectors attached to Fisheries Divisions can boast of a background in boatbuilding, marine engineering or naval architecture.49

In some places, boat inspection simply means that fishermen who cannot afford the equipment prescribed, resort to corrupt practices, such as bribery. Another way out is to borrow the equipment just for the inspection period. Where fishing licences are required, seaworthiness, safety inspection and the certification of skippers are not always stipulated.50


Accident rates are very high and as a consequence of the risks involved, insurers are reluctant to provide coverage, even at high premium rates. This also affects fishermen's ability to attract loans for new vessels, as banks hesitate to make loans against vessels whose quality, in the absence of boatbuilding standards or accredited inspection, is uncertain. Insurers and bankers in developing countries often have limited knowledge about fishing operations, the importance of fishing seasons and the need for flexible repayments, etc. and therefore tend to turn down the applications, or demand high premiums or collateral other than the boat (which are not available). Consequently, fishermen are seldom insured and if lost at sea the families suffer loss of income in addition to the personal loss.

The institution of mutual insurance schemes implemented through fishermen's cooperatives for life insurance and/or vessel insurance would alleviate the long-term financial loss suffered by the immediate family in the case of a mishap. Additionally, members of the mutual scheme, in seeking the minimum of claims against their funds, could be expected to cooperate to ensure that their boats were well maintained and equipped to avoid accident.

Insurance programmes for fishers in developing countries are still at an early stage of development and face a number of institutional, financial and technical constraints. These include high administrative costs, inadequate coverage of insurance needs and high loss ratios. Among the factors identified as crucial to the success of fisheries insurance schemes are the active participation of fishermen's organizations in design and implementation of the schemes, as well as the incorporation of insurance requirements into fisheries regulations and management, and Government financial contribution to re-insurance and in covering losses due to natural calamities.51


With the high concentration of fishing effort close to shore, the inshore resources are generally overfished and highly stressed. The need to diversify fishing is acute, but, in some cases, lack of necessary skills and equipment has not permitted this to happen.

Motorization has made it possible for fishermen to venture much further from the shore than before, often in fishing craft that are unsuitable because they were based on designs for inshore fishing. In many cases, fishermen are unfamiliar with the offshore fisheries and cannot draw upon the experience of past generations who themselves have only fished in inshore waters. The fishing trips may last for several days, whereas the vessels may be designed for day-trips only. In Sri Lanka, however, the offshore fishery has been growing considerably in the last decade. In 1998, about 1,100 small, decked boats of 9-13m ventured out as far as the coast of Somalia and stayed at sea for up to one month in search of tuna, shark and billfish.

Inshore fishermen who are forced to venture offshore run the additional risk of colliding with large domestic or foreign fishing or trading vessels.

Engine breakdown due to poor engine maintenance and lack of spare parts is recognized as a major cause of distress, especially when it occurs far from the shore with limited means of communication. In many crafts, sails and paddles have been discarded, leaving the craft without any physical means of propulsion in case of engine breakdown. Ensuring the ready availability of spares and equipment for reasonable maintenance of the engines is a priority task. Many developing countries have foreign currency problems, which means that spares and equipment have to be purchased with "hard currency", involving a great deal of bureaucracy and loss of time if the purchase has to be imported. Under these circumstances, it is not unusual for vessels to be used with equipment that is known to be defective on board, even though the owners have the money in local currency to pay for the required item. This also applies to safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers and life-jackets.52


In many places, there are no minimum requirements for carrying navigational equipment, such as a compass, charts or even a transistor radio, which may be used to take bearings on radio stations. Under these circumstances, navigation depends solely on visibility, and even where they are available, weather forecast services cannot be utilized.

Lack of equipment is very widespread and often acute. Sometimes boats are not even visible because there are no lights or radar reflectors on board.

In case of engine breakdowns or other mishaps, the first step towards rescue is to be able to contact other boats or shore stations. Near the shore, very high frequency radios (VHF) can be used, with a typical range of 30 miles (if the reception station is placed high up). In many countries, the VHF radio station network is poor or non-existent. Nevertheless, VHF radio can be useful for direct communication between boats that can operate together for increased safety. Although VHF radios may be within the financial means of artisanal fishermen, the problem is that they need electrical/battery power, which in many vessels is not generated by the outboard engines.

The fate of channel 16, the universal VHF distress channel presently monitored by all vessels and shore-based monitoring stations, is currently being debated in view of the new Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), which, in the absence of the prescribed shore-based radio facilities will be based on satellite communication. This has caused concern for the safety of small-scale fishermen, who cannot afford expensive equipment. Yet, technical advances and lowering prices may lead to dramatic changes in the means of communication available to small-scale fishermen before too long.

While it may seem obvious that fishermen would wish to carry basic life-saving equipment on board their vessels - such as first-aid kits, life-buoys and life-vests, spare water and food supplies, spare parts for the engine and oars or a sail in case of engine breakdown - fishermen are very practical and many object to carrying and paying for items that they believe are unnecessary. On small vessels, space is precious and designing multi-purpose safety equipment may be worthwhile. For instance, a sail that can also serve as a sea anchor, spray dodger or to protect the catch from the sun, is more likely to be taken along. A life jacket that is not too bulky and can be worn at work, does not take up extra space, and the radar reflector that can also be a heliograph is more readily accepted. Cost is also important. Many fishermen barely break even financially and safety equipment may simply seem too expensive. When money does become available, the fisherman may decide that it is better spent on new gear that will increase the catch, rather than on some safety equipment which may never be used.

The gap between the internationally approved standards for safety equipment such as life-jackets, and the financial means of fishermen in the developing countries, creates a dilemma. Sometimes the choice seems to be between "substandard" equipment or none at all. In any case, providing the safety gear is often a problem. In many places, it is necessary to support or establish a system that ensures the local manufacture or ready importation of appropriate safety equipment together with efficient channels for its sale to fishermen, ensuring ready availability at all times.53

The cost of better safety equipment should be assessed against the high costs of SAR operations that have to be undertaken when boats are reported missing.

Technical advances have resulted in great improvements in safety equipment, particularly in navigational and radio communication equipment and survival craft. However, there are a significant number of casualties resulting from the misuse of such equipment on board vessels, from which it may be concluded that although modern technology has an important part to play in the safe navigation of vessels, in untrained hands, it can lead to disaster. System handbooks are often difficult to understand. Hands-on training is most strongly recommended for watchkeepers to ensure that they can use autopiloting equipment correctly, know its limitations and, above all, are familiar with the procedure to override it to alter course.54


In designing training programmes for inspectors, new trainers or the fishermen themselves, several questions have to be answered.

  1. What is the framework within which the training programme will operate?
  2. Who is responsible for standards and certification?
  3. Who is to be trained?
  4. Where will the training be conducted?
  5. Who will decide on the content of the training curriculum?
  6. Who will do the training?


The framework within which the training programmes operate is often dictated by the legal provisions for vessel safety and inspection in each country. If the legal framework does not exist, it needs to be created, preferably as an integral part of fisheries management in a broader context. The framework for such legislation could be worked out by international, intergovernmental and national bodies, to be used by national governments in close cooperation with the stake-holders, such as vessel-owners, fishermen's associations and other appropriate user groups, and adapted to the specific needs of each country.

It is essential to ensure that regulations take into account the varying nature of different types of fisheries. Rules that may be appropriate for a particular type of vessel do not necessarily apply to other types of boats or fisheries. Inappropriate legislation is counterproductive as it is perceived as unrealistic and unenforceable and results in non-compliance with the rules. If some obligatory regulations are not appropriate or cannot be readily adhered to, they will seriously detract from the confidence which boat-owners and fishermen will have in the other, perhaps fully justified regulations, and reduce the overall levels of voluntary compliance.

Training programmes exist in most countries where there is enough demand and certification for crew is required. Difficulties arise where there is very little demand for such courses and the means and motivation to provide them are lacking. Before training institutes are set up, a thorough investigation should be made into the continuing demand, and if this is less than a given minimum, e.g. 20 full-time equivalent students, then other methods of training should be considered, e.g. by offering courses at appropriate intervals (every five years), or by training in an adjacent country. Setting up regional networks or training centres should encourage such cooperation.55

Authority responsible

The authority responsible for training and certification has to be designated. Given the low numbers of personnel in public service, this responsibility might fall on services that are not normally involved in training or education (e.g. Coast-Guard, Harbour Master, Navy, etc), or conversely, it may fall on someone within the educational system who is normally not involved in fisheries. This may cause problems as it requires collaboration between different administrative units and departments.

Who will be trained

Although the primary target groups are small-scale fishermen, other groups would also benefit from training. These include: inspectors and future trainers; fishery officers, whether acting in the capacity of extensionists or ensuring that fisheries regulations are followed; fishery protection officers; boat designers and builders; and search and rescue officers. In addition, it might be useful to provide information or courses for bankers and insurers, who in many cases have limited knowledge about fisheries and thus find it difficult to offer suitable financing or insurance schemes to fishermen.

Training sites

The training should be conducted as close to the fishermen's workplace as possible, both for economic and educational reasons. The need for centralized facilities with radar simulators, fire-fighting centres, etc. for training in larger vessels, does not exist for artisanal craft. Wherever possible, the training should be based on a well-defined group, such as a fishermen's cooperative, and the timing should be off-season, or during non-working hours. Quite often, successful classes are conducted in the early evening in the local school.


The curriculum should be tailored to the local situation and at a level that all trainees can follow. Educational standards in some developing countries are very low and illiteracy rates among practising fishermen in rural areas are high. This means that dissemination of material written for inspectors or small-scale fishermen in developed countries, even though it is translated into local languages, is inappropriate. Illiterate they may be, but fishermen are seldom innumerate and "hands-on" training, combined with the use of pictures and common sense can render good results.

Within the foreseeable future, the Internet will probably become the key source of teaching material. Safety courses are already being offered on the Internet and similar training material could be developed for use in different developing countries as a teaching aid.56 This task could be undertaken by FAO, with its knowledge of local conditions in the fisheries of so many developing countries.


The number of people in the developing countries who have the maritime background to train inspectors and/or fishermen is limited. Usually, the harbourmaster, coast-guard or fisheries extensionist are the natural choices. Yet the trainers themselves need to be properly prepared to be able to provide the appropriate training. It is essential that mutual trust is established between the trainer and trainees, and that the training is tailored to meet the needs of each particular group. It has been pointed out that "the big boat mentality" should be avoided and the instructors should be able to empathize with the fishermen and understand that it is the fishermen's problem that has to be tackled.57


Irrespective of the methods employed, Search and Rescue (SAR) is always a costly operation. In many developing countries it may seem a daunting task, especially where the sea area is very large in proportion to the land. Under such circumstances, search by air is most effective, but the costs involved are prohibitively high and constitute a heavy unforeseen financial burden on government departments that can ill afford it.

"Northern" sea-safety programmes and equipment have evolved in working environments where sea conditions are harsh and equipment is relatively cheap compared with the expensive manpower. Thus, the northern approaches are designed around robust equipment operating under very harsh conditions. These solutions need not be copied in developing countries. In tropical artisanal fisheries, labour is cheap, but, relatively speaking, equipment is extremely expensive. Sea conditions, on average, are not so difficult. Sea safety programmes in developing countries could make a virtue of necessity, by evolving approaches that rely more on their inexpensive manpower, making the best possible use of modest equipment that has to withstand only relatively moderate sea conditions.58

In order to facilitate SAR, a system should be established at each landing site under which, before departing, all vessels indicate the general zone where they expect to be fishing and the time when they plan to return to home base.59 Where possible, regular radio contacts with all participating coastal centres should be made at specific times of day in order to be sure that the alert system is functioning and to receive messages concerning local conditions.

It is important to coordinate the efforts of existing institutions, NGOs, the families of fishermen, and others who may take part in organizing and carrying out SAR and other safety-at-sea activities, by forming local safety-at-sea organizations that can also convene on a national basis. Such organizations help provide the continuity that is vital to effective safety-at-sea activities, such as awareness campaigns, safety courses, fund-raising and lobbying. Last but not least, they also provide large numbers of volunteers to take part in SAR when the need arises.

By involving volunteers, the official cost of SAR is dramatically reduced. In Norway, for example, the state-operated Stand-By/Rescue fleet for the offshore industry of 3,600 workers had an annual operating cost of approximately NOK500 million in 1989. The corresponding NGO service (Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue) served 30,000 fishermen with an annual operating cost of NOK350 million (in 2000). The NSSR's statistics show that on average the sea rescue cutters have saved 30 - 40 lives every year for the past 25 years. Based on the lives and property saved, the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics estimates that the NSSR's contribution to the national economy is in the range of NOK1 billion per year. 60

Box 5. Voluntary safety-at-sea organizations

An example of how a voluntary organization was established and grew to become a mass movement and one of the national pillars of sea safety, is the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (IASR). When the IASR was established in 1929, the bulk of the Icelandic fleet consisted of small (less than 20m long), decked and motorized vessels operating under very harsh weather conditions. From the very beginning, women - the wives, daughters and mothers of fishermen - were very active members of the organization. The first goal was to establish SAR groups in all the fishing communities around the coast. These consisted of the men, but alongside, the women formed their own affiliates. Their main tasks were to raise funds to buy SAR equipment, erect shelters in places prone to shipwrecks, and to build rescue vessels which were placed in strategic harbours along the coast. The IASR has taken an active part in formulating recommendations for safety regulations and in lobbying for their promotion with the authorities.

Another major task of the IASR was to organize and carry out safety instruction in the fishing communities. At first this was done by visiting instructors, who offered lectures to voluntary listeners, but over time the scope broadened and the IASR now runs the official obligatory 40-hour safety training for fishermen on vessels over 12m. The courses are offered on board a well-equipped teaching vessel, which pays regular visits to the communities around the coast.

The IASR has grown to be an indispensable part of safety at sea in Iceland, a respected consultant and close cooperator with the authorities, able, at a moment's notice, to call out hundreds of well-trained volunteers, both men and women, for SAR at sea or on land, with the most up-to-date equipment and ready to operate under any circumstances, be it wrecked or stranded ships, volcanic eruptions, avalanches, or other unforeseen natural catastrophies.


The very nature of the fishing communities in developing countries makes it difficult to implement rules and regulations concerning the seaworthiness of both vessels and crews. Huge numbers of fishing units are spread over long coastlines and numerous, often remote, islands. In many places, harbours are few and far between and beach landing is common. Harbours provide a natural point of control and enforcement, and where they do not exist an alternative system needs to be built up in cooperation between official agencies and the users, such as the vessel owners and fishermen's organizations.

Most developing countries have some form of Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) in place. MCS is basically defined for fisheries management and covers fisheries research, data collection, statistics, etc. However, MCS is generally interpreted as a policing operation, where vessels are checked at sea so the emphasis is on Surveillance.61 MCS does not control safety aspects, i.e. the seaworthiness of the vessel and the training/certification of the crew. MCS is generally under the auspices of the Ministry of Fisheries (or equivalent) or the Ministry of Justice, whereas safety at sea is generally managed by the Ministry of Transportation. It therefore requires interdepartmental cooperation to use the framework of MCS for control and enforcement of regulations concerning safety at sea.

An interesting proposal is being prepared by FAO for the West African region linking the services for MCS, SAR and safety at sea in order to maximize their efficiency for as low a cost a possible. Many of the services offered in these three areas can be shared, and, in order to increase efficiency, it is proposed that they be administered as a single unit by one national coordinating committee.

Box 6. Joint MCS, artisanal safety at sea and SAR - A common solution

In the West African region, 80% of the artisanal fleet is unmotorized, the yearly fatality rate for fishermen is about ten times higher than in the developed countries (around 1,000 per 100,000), and most of the countries have opened their EEZ to foreign industrial fleets. Although a 3-12 nautical mile coastal zone is reserved for artisanal fishers, keeping the industrial vessels out of these waters poses problems for the local MCS services.

The main elements of the proposed solution lie in the mutual benefits of cooperation between the artisanal fishermen themselves and the authorities responsible for controlling their activities.

It is suggested that a proportion of artisanal craft be equipped with VHF radios and act as the detection system that reports industrial vessel incursions into waters reserved for the artisanal sector. These radio-boats could also serve as a part of the fishermen's safety group, by alerting the shore stations in case of emergency and taking part in SAR actions.

Another part of this intermediate technology (IT) MCS would consist of a chain of low-cost shore site radar stations, equipped with 12 volt yacht-quality radars on tall telephone poles, to provide day-and-night monitoring of the positions of the industrial fishing vessels near the coast. The shore stations would be manned jointly by a team of naval officers and personnel from the national fisheries department and equipped with a motorized, slightly modified and strengthened fishing canoe enabling them to react to suspected incursion by boarding and examining the vessel in question, thus serving as MCS. Similarly, they would have an SAR function, reacting to distress signals, organizing and going out on SAR operations in cooperation with the fishermen's safety groups.

Keeping the industrial fleet out of coastal waters and serving as SAR teams should create trust and good will, which would facilitate the third function of the IT MCS system, namely to carry out MCS on the artisanal fishery itself by actively patrolling and supervising their operations.


Forming and maintaining a record of fishing vessels is of central importance for the management of fisheries for economic, biological and social reasons. In order to be able to relate the size and capacity of the fishing fleet to the expected yield of the resource, it is necessary to issue fishing licences to registered vessels. Records of vessels are also central to controlling their seaworthiness through a formal inspection system, preferably linked to the issuing of fishing permits. Keeping track of the vessels through registration provides the necessary base for collecting various types of statistics, be they related to the catch, the number of people employed or safety issues. Records are central to vessel monitoring and being able to identify vessels is a key element in SAR. For safety and management reasons, all vessels should be kept on record and have the boat name and/or registration number painted or engraved on their hull. Additionally, there remains a requirement for the marking of all fishing vessels under Article III (Flag State Responsibility) of the Compliance Agreement.62 Life jackets, ring buoys and other floating equipment on board should have the name of the boat and its home port printed, painted or written on the equipment.

Obviously, building up and maintaining up-to-date records of vessels and crew is a task that demands a sustained effort and coordination on part of the administration. To facilitate this, guidelines providing the framework for such registration systems in developing countries would be useful. An outline of guidelines for a permanent register of accidents on board fishing vessels is provided in the FAO Missions Report for the Gambia Fisheries Department, 1995. FAO has issued Technical Guidelines intended to provide support for the implementation of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. The data requirements listed as desirable for implementation of a management plan63 include information on the name and type of vessel, date and place built, length of vessel, vessel markings, type of gear, international radio call sign, address or port of registry, name and address of owner (see table 3 in the Technical Guidelines). These items would also be useful for safety management purposes, confirming yet again that fisheries management and safety management go hand in hand and should not be administered as separate issues.

47 There are exceptions to this, e.g. Bangladesh, Mozambique, Namibia and Eritrea and many small island states.

48 Figures 3 and 4 are from The world fishing fleet, in The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 1998: 66-69. FAO, Rome, 1999.

49 Turner, J. FAO Technical Cooperation Programme Draft, Regional Project Proposal, Development of Standards for the Construction and Survey of Small Fishing Vessels. May 1999.

50 Ben -Yami, M. Safety at sea, the tragedy of official default. In Samudra, 23: 24-28, Sept 1999.

51 Regional Conference on Insurance and Credit for Sustainable Fisheries Development in Asia, Tokyo, 1996. summarized in Fisheries Insurance Programmes in Asia , FAO Fisheries Circular No. 948.

52 Prado, J. & Smith, A. Les accidents a bord de petits bateaux de peche dans les pays en developpement, quelques mesures preventive. International Symposium on Safety and Working Conditions on Fishing Vessels. Universite de Quebec, 1989.

53 Johnson, J. Outline of actions which can be taken to improve artisanal safety at sea. Report of FAO Mission for the Gambia Fisheries Department, 1995.

54 Safety Bulletin 3/99 MAIB, November 1999.

55 Turner, J. A guide for the implementation of safety programmes in fisheries, in International Symposium on Safety and Working Conditions aboard Fishing Vessels, University of Québec, Rimouski: 397- 403, 1989.

56 Krisnhnan, O.G. Web-based information: Safely in the net. In Samudra 23: 34. 1999.

57 Fitzpatrick, J. & Smith, A. The Training of Fishermen: a Small island Approach. Second International Symposium on Safety and Working Conditions abord Fishing vessels. Bamio, Spain. 15-17 Sept 1992.

58 Johnson, J. Intermediate technology MCS and appropriate technology for artisanal sea safety: a solution in common. Draft version. February 2000.

59 Johnson, J. Outline of actions which can be taken to improve artisanal safety at sea. FAO report to the Gambia Fisheries Department. 1995.

60 The Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue

61 FAO Report on an Expert Consultation for Fisheries Management. Rome, FAO, 1981.

Monitoring - the continuous requirement for the measurement of fishing effort characteristics and resource yields

Control - the regulatory conditions under which the exploitation of the resource may be conducted

Surveillance - the degree and types of observations required to maintain compliance with the regulatory controls imposed on fishing activities.

62 Each party shall ensure that all fishing vessels are marked in such a way that they can be readily identified in accordance with generally accepted standards, such as the FAO Standard Specifications for the Marking and Identification of Fishing Vessels, FAO, 1989.

63 FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries no 4, Fisheries Management. Rome, 1997.

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