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by John Fitzpatrick

Fishery Industries Division

FAO Fisheries Department

Via delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy


This document reviews technology adopted by the fishing industry. It explains how technology required to comply with international conventions has been further developed and adopted, on a voluntary basis, by the industry. It is suggested that in order to assess risks and reduce uncertainty, a thorough analysis should be made of the world's fleets of fishing vessels and fishing gear; that there should be a standard method for the measurement and classification of fishing vessels and gear; and, that fleet restructuring policies should be elaborated on the basis of a full understanding of technology required for the implementation of conservation and management measures (if they are to be effective) as well as to benefit industry. The document conclude that requirements for the adoption of technology, or development thereof, should be incorporated in legislation.


Research and Development are expensive and those investing in such activities seek to capitalize on their work and look to the law to protect their interest. In this respect, the export or import of technology is often controlled by government decree and there are many examples associated with trans-national corporations, classified(military) technology and where its importation may give an unfair advantage to one or a limited number of local manufactures. Likewise, whilst patent laws, protect the interest of an inventor, they also provide a vehicle for control over its use as well as further development of the invention.

However, research and development is also concentrated to a great extent in developed countries. In fact, conservative estimates by UNIDO put the contribution of developing countries in this respect at no more than 6 percent (less if china is excluded). Consequently, many developing countries see a growing need for a new approach to international transfer of technology, particularly in the course of implementation of UNCED's Agenda 21. Recent trends have shown a greater interest in technology acquisition by developing countries and some have elaborated acts in this regard in response to their desire to promote and stimulate scientific development, research and technological capabilities, the precautionary aspects of which need consideration.

The following sections will address first the general issue of regulating fishing technology for management purposes and then present some thoughts about precautionary approach to such regulation, before offering, in conclusion, some guidelines about implementation.


Sources of technology

In general, capture fisheries benefit greatly from developments in technology arising from non-fisheries based industries. This is the case, for example, with regard to research and development in naval architecture, marine engineering, electronics and textiles without which there would have been little development in fisheries. Thus, laws promulgated for the purpose of fisheries conservation and management intended to restrict the transfer or development of technology, would not influence basic industrial research and development in the above mentioned disciplines. On the other hand, the fisheries sector does influence research and development to be directed towards aspects of capture technology by virtue of the market potential of the industry. Finally, the fisheries sector also causes applied research to be carried out, for example in the case of fishing gear design and properties (e.g., fuel efficiency, selectivity). A prime example of this being the development of Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs) in shrimp trawls; once the technology had been proven. legislation followed requiring its use.

Technology regulation

Subject to the provisions of UNCLOS 1982, each State may set conditions for the exploitation of stocks occurring in waters over which it has jurisdiction. Such conditions may also be applied to fishing methods and fishing materials. There is, therefore, ample license for a State to regulate the level of technology to be associated with the harvesting process.

In practice, many attempts have been made through fisheries legislation to restrict the importation of technology or to set limits within which a technology may be used, although these attempts have not always given the desired results. In fact efforts to restrict vessel sizes or power led to the development of “rule beaters” by the industry and some manufacturers simply rewrote their specifications to suit the law1. There are also many examples of technology having been held at a low level due to the general state of the development of the country concerned or for reasons of national security, trade agreements or labour considerations. However, given that the massive rate of increase in landings from the 1950' was attributed to the development of new technology and geographical expansion of fisheries facilitated by such development, few countries would appear to have placed too many restrictions on its adoption. This fact, combined with the growth rate of the world's fleets, led to the present situation where the overall fishing capacity is clearly out of proportion to the available living resources of the seas and inland waters.

Given also that future trends could reflect a decrease in landings from capture fisheries if management fails to improve, fisheries managers should take into consideration technical developments in fleet restructuring exercises and in doing so, they should evaluate the risks associated with the adoption or non-adoption of new technology, as the case may be.

1 Regulations should include reference to specific internationally accepted standards for the measurement of performance. Those charged with the responsibility to implement regulations should have an understanding of such performance standards and their inter-relationship

Technology, safety and risk

Fisheries managers and legislators must first of all consider the risks associated with using the law to control the adoption and use of technology as a tool for the application of the precautionary approach to management of fisheries. Such risks arise,inter alia, from the fact that technology is developed and adopted not only to improve fishing efficiency but also to improve safety in maritime traffic, to comply with international conventions and laws on labour, and to enhance the well being of fishing communities. Regulations aiming at controlling or limiting the use of technology may also be in contravention with wider laws related to technology transfer, where, for example, a government has introduced basic acts to enhance the technological capability of the country.

The inherent risks associated with maritime traffic have led to the development and availability of technology on the basis of which it has been possible to elaborate international conventions. Those countries ratifying such conventions legislate accordingly, requiring vessels to carry certain types of equipment and to carry out procedures that depend on associated hardware (and software). In such cases, the associated technical specifications for equipment are also internationally agreed. Furthermore, the time frame for the adoption of the technology under a convention, may take into consideration the age of ships, their size, area of operation, as well as the special needs of developing countries. For this reason, at any given moment in time, there is not a levelling out of technology in use world wide.

Within such international conventions, the safety of life at sea and protection of the marine environment play an important part and they set standards and regulations that can often only be met through the adoption of new technology and the bigger the fishing vessel, the more this is the case2. In addition, with respect to fishing vessels, such technology usually can be put to good use as an aid to fishing operations as in the case of the echosounder and navigation equipment, adding fishing efficiency to vessel safety (see Annex 1). In addition, many technological developments have been brought about through the need for increased efficiency, less crew, easier and safer working conditions and as a means to prevent marine pollution. Consequently, attempts to fishing vessels of some of their technical aids with the view to reduce fishing efficiency and capacity, may effectively render them uneconomic to operate and it could be illegal to do so with respect to national laws of those States that have ratified various international or regional conventions.

Technology and fisheries management

Traditionally, fisheries legislation sets out types of gear and methods that are permitted and where these may be deployed. In some cases, even the details of the type of materials allowed or banned are contained in the regulations. Furthermore, as mentioned above, legislation may also be enacted with respect to the selectivity of fishing gear and methods and this is clearly an area for further consideration. However, perhaps less attention has been given, in legislation, to matching gear to vessel types and power as well as matching investment in potential fishing effort with the level of available living aquatic resources. Indeed these are perhaps the main factors neglected in the past with respect to fleet development in general and the introduction of technology in particular.

It may be pertinent, therefore, to look at each type of fishery and associated technology (vessels, fishing gear and methods) in order to differentiate between the technology: (a) required by legislation in response to internationally agreed legal instruments; (b) freely adopted by the fishing industry, identifying the reasons for adoption; and (c) required to ensure sustainable use of fishery resources. Thereafter, the extent to which technology regulations could contribute to responsible management measures and precautionary approach to fisheries, could be assessed to ensure that they would not inadvertently decrease safety of life at sea while reducing threat to the resource or the environment. At the same time, the level of investment required from the fishers should be considered, with the associated commercial and social risks.

2 See protocol of 1993 to the Torremolinos International Convention on the Safety of Fishing Vessels, 1977

In this respect and given the general state of fisheries world wide, there are already identifiable situations where fisheries managers may have to resort to legislation and in which technology would play an important part.

Artisanal and small scale fisheries are already under severe pressure due to the generally high levels of fishing effort within inshore areas as well as competition with recreational, commercial and industrial fishers and other non-fishery resource users. As a result, the use of certain types of fishing gear is being restricted while commercial and industrial operations are being pushed farther offshore. The actual effects of legislation enacted in this respect vary according to the geography and demography of region, the availability of stocks as well as the capability of the vessels affected by the re-location measures to use other gear and move safely offshore. From experience gained to date, relocation of vessels to farther and deeper grounds and resources usually creates a need to refit them, update the technology they use, and even develop new types of craft in cases where the well-being of fishing communities and the continuation of their way of life is considered to be important. There are, however, instances where government policies are not so favourable towards fisheries and the law has effectively put fishers out of the business of fishing.

Past experience has also shown that there must be sufficient investment in credit and transfer of technology by governments as well as other incentives to the artisanal sector to get it to move part of his effort farther offshore, reducing pressure on coastal resources. There is of course a cost to both management and fishers and the latter have to recover such cost by earning more/greater efficiency.

Moving part, or all of the small scale fishing fleets away from inshore waters would also add to the complications arising from interaction with regard to larger vessels already operating within the contiguous zone and from the need to decide on overall levels of offshore effort and on theiur allocation among competing sub-sectors. Many of these larger are subject to regulations concerning their construction, manning and operation. High levels of competition among them have lead to the adoption of “borrowed” technology to increase efficiency. Thus the multiple use of electronics as well as communication systems and hydraulic transmission for which machinery is prevalent. Since care of the catch is usually crucial to their economic survival, the levels of technology in use in this respect may also be high. Without effort regulations to stabilize their incomes, the added competition for resources with re-located vessels would also increase the race towards improved technology that would decrease operational costs and increase efficiency. Managing fisheries through regulation of technology will therefore require: (a) matching fishing capacity and fishing effort with resources available, reducing fleet sizes where appropriate; (b) assessment of appropriate technology, satisfying both industries' and resources requirements; (c) the provision of access to investment/credit in new technology and training; (d) revision (and often simplification) of fisheries laws and regulations, and; (e) effort monitoring and control.

Larger vessels operating in EEZs and on the high seas are often purpose-built for specific fishing methods and although they may differ in configuration one to the other as may their target species, they must all be high earners to break even (subsidies not being encouraged in most cases). Many of the new entrants to this category are using state of the art technology, without it, they would not have attracted the necessary finance to build the vessels. Older vessels do not meet the same standards and have a lower technology co-efficient, consequently they look for alternative solutions to reduce high operational costs, some of which are in direct conflict with agreed conservation and management measures and some contrary to international labour agreements. This last category probably lends itself to the adoption of a higher level of technology as well as incorporating the requirements in legislation. However, to legislate for this sector, attention would have to be given, inter-alia, to: (a) improved financing arrangements for ship building (including vessel registration); (b) the trend towards increased automation; (c) provision of shore-to-ship services including weather prediction, satellite imagery related to upwelling, surface temperatures, chlorophyll concentrations and other productivity-related parameters; (d) education, training and certification3 as well as compliance with labour laws, and; (e) effective MCS.

In general, using legislation for the diversification of fishing effort places a responsibility on fisheries managers to ensure that the numbers of those authorized to fish and their gear, are compatible with the available resources. Furthermore, management should take into consideration the probable fishing effort of those so authorized as well as their estimated break even point in terms of catch which means that management must have knowledge of the technical details of the vessels and gear to be deployed and of their performance under given management regimes.


From the above, a prerequisite for precautionary decision-making by fisheries managers would be a full understanding of fleet sizes and their composition together with knowledge of resources and their disposition as well an understanding of the impact of fishing gear, methods and practices on the environment.

With regard to vessels, such understanding would depend on records being as complete as possible and should include details of any improvements made during the life of a vessel. Many administrations do keep suitable records and maintain qualified technical staff to verify the information and to provide appropriate advice in the decision making process. What is lacking, however, is a uniform method of fishing vessel measurement and classification4 through which the apparent fishing effort could be readily assessed for various fishing methods. In this respect, although many countries are beginning to keep records, these records do not always follows the same standards and fall short of the minimum requirements for the purpose of assessing: (a) potential fishing effort; (b) numbers and sizes of single gear vessels; (c) numbers and sizes of multi purpose vessels, and; (d) the fleet age/replacement curve/technology co-efficient5.

3 In July 1995, IMO will convene an International Conference on the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Fishing Vessel Personnel; commonly referred to as the STCW-F Convention

4 With a fleet of vessels of different ages, many even built under different regulations for the measurement of ships and certainly most with varying levels of efficiency, there would be a need to introduce an efficiency of technology factor in the classification process; to achieve this may take a considerable length of time

5 In most restructuring exercises, the fleet sizes would have to be reduced. Furthermore, for each new vessel entering a fishery, more than one vessel would have to be taken out. The actual ratio would reflect the apparent increase in efficiency of the new unit compared to the fleet profile. This ratio, or technology coefficient, could vary from 1.5 : 1 to 4 : 1 or even 5 : 1 (see Annex 1)

Such information is only part of management requirements since it is equally important to be aware of the actual movement of fleets or even individual vessels. In this respect, the development and adoption of appropriate technology is essential to assure that managers have access to intelligence systems in support of rapid assessment mechanisms within the concept of the precautionary approach; it follows that historical fleets and technology records must be maintained and reference levels corresponding to dangerous situation estblished6 while ensuring that the best scientific advice is available and used. It also follows that there must be effective monitoring, control and surveillance systems in place for which state of the art technology should be adopted in order to ensure:

With regard to fishing gear, methods and practices, and in addition to aspects of selectivity already mentioned, there would also be a need for a greater understanding of the effects of fishing activities on the environment. In this respect, it is probably premature to set generic and globally applicable indices of “friendliness” for gear and methods, related to their potential impact since much more research must be carried out with different types of gear, on the various species assemblages in distinct locations with particular bottom types and configurations before available gears and practices can be classified objectively in relation to ecosystems, stocks and local conditions.

However, in broad terms, the concept of classifying gears, methods and practices is reasonable with regard to their impact on the environment. The practice of dynamite fishing (or cyanide fishing) is already widely prohibited (equally widely used illegally) and the negative effects of bottom trawling on seabed ecosystems under certain severe conditions gives rise for concern even though there may also be positive effects; and in some places the common hook and line is blamed for damage to coral reefs. Certain types of gear are also prone to damage leading to loss and/or abandonment at sea and these contribute in no small measure to ghost fishing and environmental damage7.

The gear technology presently available, may not be sufficiently developed to provide managers with a definitive planning management tool to allow then to readily assess all risks. but in general, there is suffient knowledge available, for them to react within a regime based on the precautionary approach and to use regulating in align gear and method “ environmental indices” with authorised fishing areas(in space and time). Further there would always be the probability of uncertainly even if fishing effors were to be kept under strict control, early warning systems aould gives managers enough time to put in place contigency plans before disaster strikes a fishery.

6 Such reference points could be established following accepted engineering principles to raise a warning sign prior to reaching danger levels in order to provide time to take appropriate remedial action

7 The practice of incorporating biodegradable materials would be taken into consideration as would the likely effect of any increase in loss of gear or parts of gear due to the use of weaker materials. This subject is also referred to in the Report of the FAO Expert Consultation on the Marking of Fishing Gear, FAO Fisheries Report No. 485

With regard to a new fishery, or even the proposed introduction of new or different fishing gear and methods in an existing fishery, the level of uncertainty8 should be assumed to be high and the need for prior assessment of impacts and implications should be implicit. Such assessment would most probably require pilot operations to be conducted simulating a limited commercial operation. Thereafter, should there be a decision to proceed on a commercial basis, the rate of expansion should be controlled and the results closely monitored.


The use of the “law” to limit the level of technology to be adopted for the purpose of applying the precautionary approach to fisheries, may not always be a straightforward and practical matter, particularly where vessels have been built with “state of the art” technology. Technology is not evil in itself and it is the way in which it is used (or misused) that gives rise to concern. Indeed many fishers rely on the adoption of recent technological developments to: (a) be cost effective; (b) secure a high level of safety, and; (c) make a real contribution to conservation measures (through the use of selective gear, predictive tools and techniques to reduce waste).

Fishermen are inventive by nature and stimulated by competition. They will always look for ways to ensure good returns for their efforts and ways to ensure that they can continue to fish in perpetuity. In order to ensure that fishing development is responsible, the following would be needed:

  1. The law should be used to benefit both the resource and those engaged in fishing and the views of all concerned should be taken into consideration in promulgating legislation; the law should also hold all stake holders accountable.

  2. A requirement should be incorporated in fisheries legislation, to adopt the technology, standards and administrative guidelines for the marking of fishing gear9, as: (a) an aid to fisheries management; (b) a response to the recommendations set out in the guidelines for the implementation of Annex V of Marpol; and (c) a means to reduce the incidence of ghost fishing.

  3. Legislation for the purpose of fisheries conservation and management should include regulations concerning fleet restructuring that would:

  4. 8 Much more research is required with regard to the incidential catch of birds, turtles and mammals. The kind of problem (with birds) which is closely related to longline fishing, is currently being studied and, in some cases, preventive measures have been successfully adopted and embodied in legislation.

    In the case of turtles, considerable success has been achieved in relation to active gear. More research is required on the reaction of mammals to fishing gear with an emphasis on making full use of the natural means by which these animals communicate. In this respect, the use of acoustic technology and light reflection should be further developed

    9 The report of the FAO Expert Consultation on the Marking of Fishing Gear, Victoria, British Columbia, 14– 19 July 1991. FAO Fisheries Report No. 485, may be used for reference although the system has not yet been adopted by the FAO Committee on Fisheries

    1. Set the minimum standards for the construction of fishing vessels and performance standards for equipment related to the safety of life and property at sea as well as the protection of the environment;

    2. Provide for the limitation of the growth in fishing effort by determining technology co-efficients for fishing vessels in order to arrive at ratios of new entrants to mandatory withdrawals from the fleet10;

    3. Give an internationally agreed definition of a fishing vessel by type, size and tonnage;

    4. Classify fishing gear by selectivity ratios having regard to the maintenance of biodiversity, and by the allocation of environment indices, with regard to the protection of the environment;

    5. Set upper and lower limits for the specification of fishing gears in relation to a fishing vessel as defined under para (c);

    6. Regulate fishing gear, methods and practices to reduce discards;

    7. Govern the conduct of fishing operations.

  5. There should be a legal requirement for fishing vessels to be fitted with equipment that would facilitate vessel tracking systems11.

  6. In the case of new fisheries and/or the introduction of new fishing gears and methods in an existing fishery, there should be a requirement for prior assessment of the impact on habitat disturbance, biodiversity, as well as the socio-economic implications12.

  7. Requirements for the fishing industry to adopt technology to reduce the level of dangerous substances in exhaust gas emissions, as well as to phase out CFC's and to control the use of transitional substances (HCFC's), should be incorporated in legislation.

10 Given that the average age of the fishing vessels of the world is in the order of 15 years, assessments could be made by taking 1980 for setting 1:1 bench marks; examples are given in Annex I. It being understood, that due consideration would be given to the level and periodicity of upgrading of individual vessels

11 It should be noted that this requirement is not limited to MCS functions. The requirements under “ship reporting” systems and vessel traffic separation schemes must also be incorporated in regulations

12 Provisions for impact assessments should be part of a statutory procedure and should include, inter-alia: (a) rules and specifications for the conduct of an impact assessment; (b) monitoring, control and review; (c) wide consultation with interested parties; (d) timely dissemination of information; and (e) appeal procedures

Annex I


For the purpose of elaborating policies for restructuring fleets, a full analysis of the status of existing fleets and levels of technology in use should be made. The information so assembled could be used to determine vessel replacement ratios, establish decommissioning schemes and to calculate socio-economic effects of fleet restructuring policies. The introduction of “technology co-efficient” would greatly assist policy makers, with the co-operation of the industry, to arrive at agreed ratios of new entrants to withdrawals. Furthermore, it would also be possible to clearly identify technology and applications thereof for inclusion in legislation.

Estimated Technology Co-efficient By Vessel Types13
Vessel TypeLength (m)Technology Co-Efficient
Super Trawler1200.612.5
Tuna Seiner65 11.6
Tuna Long Liner650.512.3
Freeze Trawler500.712.0
Purse Seiner450.612.0
Stern Trawler350.611.9
Long Liner350.412.8
Shrimp Trawler250.512.2
Fast Potter100.311.4

13 As given in the text of the document, the year 1980 has been selected as the bench mark with 1:1 ratio. The table may be refined for specific fleets by taking into account operational patterns or tactics. Similarly, the bench marks (still on the basis of 1980) could be refined to compare vessel categories, provided that there exists an agreed classification of fishing vessels and fishing gear

Developments in materials of construction for fishing gear, fishing location and navigation equipment, catching methods, design and construction of fishing vessels as well as the development in post harvest conservation technology, were taken into account in assessing the “technology co-efficient14”.

For the purpose of this paper, no attempt was made to compare efficiency between the various classes of fishing vessels since there would also be a need to analyze investment costs, economic and social factors. However this should not be neglected in the fleet restructuring process, just as, within the general classification given above, there would also be a need, in some fisheries to apply to the equation a factor relating to changes in operational patterns, but these must be done on a case by case basis.

14 The Expert Consultation had access to an appendix entitled “Technology Development In Capture Fisheries” prepared by the author and is available from FAO

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