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IV. Fisheries management and safety

It has often been speculated whether and in what way different fisheries management systems may have an effect on safety at sea. Co-management in the regulatory process, in which stakeholders/user groups have the formal opportunity and the power to participate in the design and implementation of fisheries regulations, is especially important given the impact that fisheries management regulations have on reducing or increasing dangers at sea. Such an impact is not a new concept, but unfortunately, it is not one that has been widely studied.40

In open-access fisheries, competition is the order of the day. Getting to and from the fishing grounds as fast as possible and carrying home the largest possible catch, calls for increasing engine power, vessel size and gear efficiency. Although working conditions and efficiency have improved in many ways with increased mechanization, new dangers have been introduced and the strain on the crew is still considerable, not least because of the reduction in numbers to cut costs. Safety regulations accepted by the merchant fleet met with reluctance in the fisheries, where people resented any infringement that might affect their income.


Under the open-access fisheries, the capacity of the fleets was bound sooner or later to exceed the yield of the fishable stocks. In many countries, this coincided more or less with the advent of the 1982 UN Convention, which divided the former "high seas" into EEZs for coastal states, allowing each nation to control the fisheries up to 200 miles off its shores. Different management systems have subsequently been developed to control the fisheries. These are outlined below.

Access limited by size (and type of gear)

This type of control is meant to prevent vessels over a given size from entering an area, usually in order to reserve it for smaller inshore boats. The unintended result has often been that owners change the construction of their vessels to fit the criteria. These changes may severely affect the stability and seaworthiness of the vessels, which gained a reputation as "rule-beaters" or "sea-monsters". This has been difficult to prevent, as measures to intervene on behalf of the authorities are often lacking.

From a safety point of view, however, it is also important to bear in mind that when large vessels and small ones are fishing in the same areas, dangers of collision and damaging gear arise. Similarly, if fishing grounds close to shore are depleted, the small vessels are forced further out than their capacity and construction warrant. This is a real problem, quite commonly seen in industrialized as well as developing countries.

Total Allowable Catch (TAC)

Setting an upper limit to the TAC without further regulations, invariably leads to a rush for the fish, resulting in even fiercer competition than under the open-access fisheries. These are aptly described as "Derby" or "Olympic"-fisheries and are bound to inflict great pressure on the captain, crew and the vessel until the TAC is exhausted.

TAC with restricted days at sea

In order to mitigate the "Olympic-fisheries effect", the number of days allowed at sea is stipulated along with the TACs. In some cases, the authorities decide beforehand which days of the season will be open to fisheries. This is an unfortunate system from a safety point of view, as it cannot take into account important factors such as the weather.

On the other hand, stipulated days ashore, particularly if combined with minimum wage insurance, make it possible for the authorities to plan boat inspections and educational activities such as safety courses ahead of time.

Individual Quotas (IQs)

The idea behind Individual Quotas (IQs) is to divide the TAC beforehand between a given number of vessels or parties. The element of competition for the highest possible share of the allowable catch should thereby be eliminated, taking with it time-pressure in fishing and transit. The success of this system obviously depends on how realistically the TACs can be set. If, in the fishermen's opinion the TAC is too extravagant, they will set out to fish their share as quickly as possible. If, on the other hand, the TAC is considered realistic, the fisheries can be planned for the entire fishing season without undue pressure. But the fisheries are still subject to the pressures of fluctuating prices on the market that apply to fisheries in general.

Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs)

From a fisheries management point of view, IQs should provide a tool to prevent further increase in the national fishing fleets, but they do not provide an incentive to reduce the existing overcapacity of the fleet.

By making the quotas transferable, however, an incentive is provided to reduce the fleet by amalgamating the quotas onto fewer vessels and getting rid of the rest. But this, in turn, reintroduces the pressure of maximum performance and productivity for each vessel, as in open-access fisheries. Having to pay for the right to fish, which formerly was free, increases both the financial pressure on the owners and the performance pressure on the vessel and crew, with obvious negative effects on safety.

These examples show that, even though fisheries management systems are not meant to regulate safety at sea, they inevitably have an effect in this respect. It is important to keep safety at sea in mind when fisheries management regimes are being evaluated; where these have a direct impact on fishing operations, management systems should provide fishermen with sufficient flexibility to enable them to choose the safe option. Preferably, safety should be an integral part of the management system from the very beginning.


In addition to the factors mentioned above, there have been speculations as to whether the system of remuneration may affect safety at sea. The basic types of remuneration prevailing in the fishing industry are the share system and the system of wages plus a catch bonus. The first is the more widespread and is often combined with a minimum wage assurance, while the second is restricted to vessels over a certain size administered by structured companies, and often involves agreements that regulate working hours among other issues.

In the former case, the fisherman is usually an entrepreneur or co-adventurer and the normal employer-employee relationship upon which the system of occupational safety and health in industry tends to be based, is largely absent. In many countries, this means that fishermen do not enjoy the same social security benefits as employees on land.

As with any payment system, "catch-share" has both advantages and disadvantages. Those in favour of it say that it increases motivation, creates team spirit and gives every seaman a stake in the results achieved. It also distributes the risk between the owner and crew members during spells of poor fishing and, when things go well, the crew benefits directly. The "Klondike-spirit" that this system breeds is an integral part of the work environment and incentive in the non-industrial fisheries. There is no doubt that the catch-share motivates fishermen to work harder and for longer hours, which in itself contributes to risk through fatigue. It also increases the motivation to go fishing under adverse weather conditions, to take risks while fishing in the hope of increasing the catch and to overload the vessel when the fishing goes well.

Here the responsibility of the skipper must be kept in mind. He decides where, when, how, and for how long the fishing operations are carried out. How he goes about controlling the work on board depends on his disposition and temperament, his commitments (e.g. loans), age, experience, etc. In a survey on safety done among Icelandic fishermen, the most important safety factor singled out was the disposition of the captain.41 The skipper is not exempt from the incentives and pressures of the catch-share system. On the contrary, not only his own, but everybody else's wages depend on how well he performs.

In this respect, it is interesting to note that even though fishermen may officially have the right to refuse unsafe work, allegedly allowing them the same rights as onshore workers, their situation is very different and it is unlikely that they will exert this right. First of all, it is the traditional, primary rule at sea that the captain decides and that insubordination may lead to retribution on part of the captain or company, perhaps to loss of wages for the voyage or even to losing one's workplace on board. Then there is the pervasive notion that physical risks are a part of the job. Thirdly, the crew looks upon itself as co-adventurers who share both risks and benefit. This exerts peer pressure on each crew member not to let the others down. Last but not least, there is no controlling agent on board the vessel, to whom the crew member can turn and who protects his rights. On land such agents can be summoned, and in compliance with safety regulations this may lead to closure of the plant.

Thus, it can be argued that the catch-share system carries with it certain risk elements. However, catch-share is so ingrained in fishing tradition, that attempts to replace it with an alternative system, by changing from a modified bonus-system and co-risk status to a true wage-employee status, seem highly unlikely to succeed. 42 This does not mean, however, that the authorities, vessel-owners and fishermen can not scrutinize the system with the aim of reducing elements that contribute to risk-taking.


The fact that the oceans and their living resources constitute an interactive global biosystem is gradually becoming more widely understood. No nation can escape affecting others by its actions or lack of action to manage its fisheries. Overfishing may not only destroy one stock but also lead to the collapse of other species feeding upon it. Destroying breeding grounds in one area may affect fisheries in totally different waters. Disrupting migratory routes in the high seas may have widespread effects in coastal zones, etc. The sea, which was regarded until recently as the cornucopia of food for all, is emerging as a sensitive and limited resource which must be carefully administered by all who exploit it.

This is such a revolutionary concept that it will take considerable time for its consequences to be realized in full: free access to fisheries is bound to disappear, be it on the high seas or within national waters. All nations will have to find ways to manage their fisheries, collect information on the size and composition of their fleets and adjust them to the capacity of the fish-stocks within their jurisdiction. If this is to be achieved, even artisanal fisheries in the developing nations will have to be contained and controlled in some way. Because of the small size of the vessels and the relatively ineffective fishing gear, the importance of controlling artisanal fisheries tends to be underestimated. Yet, on a global scale, artisanal craft are probably over 2.5 million in number, and have been estimated to fish half of the yearly capture fisheries for human consumption, which amounts to about 30 million tons.43 So, by force of sheer numbers, artisanal vessels are major players in world fisheries and, as such, cannot be exempted from the regulatory regime.

Alternatively, the fate of fisheries will be determined biologically, by the collapse of the stocks. This would obviously have disastrous consequences for those who depend on fisheries for their living.

To varying degrees, most coastal industrialized nations, as well as some developing ones, are already employing some sort of control on their fisheries. In some countries, the management regimes are comprehensive and effective, while in others the control is only fragmentary and the infrastructure to carry it out almost non-existent. In some regions, as mentioned above, the countries have successfully formed coalitions to cooperate on fisheries management issues such as monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS).

One example is the cooperation of the Small Island States of the Caribbean who are working towards harmonizing their Fisheries Legislation. The legislation of each country will contain minimum standards for inspection and safety equipment to be provided on ALL sizes of fishing vessels. This is quite different from legislation in most industrialized fishing nations which, as indicated above, tends to apply only to vessels over a certain size.

Cooperation of this kind has often been instigated and supported by international institutions, first and foremost FAO, which has also upon request provided individual countries with assistance in developing fisheries management schemes.

The structural adjustments that are required in many fisheries will take a long time to become effective. Fisheries management is a process that evolves over time in response to changing circumstances. It is clear that in many developing countries, fisheries have a long way to go before they can be brought under formal control. Fisheries have been open access, the fleet poorly controlled and often operated directly from the shore with few or no harbours which might act as control points. As fisheries are often the employment of last resort, either for wages or at least to provide food for the family, restricting access to fisheries may prove a politically and practically daunting task. Nevertheless, all fisheries will have to accept the inevitability of management, and experience shows that the benefits of such a regime may in fact compensate for the costs.

Namibia is an example of a successful transformation from uncontrolled to well-managed fisheries. In the decades preceding Namibia's independence in 1990, the hake in Namibian waters was severely overfished and its biomass reduced by over 80%.

"Five years after taking control of its fisheries resources at independence, Namibia had created 6,000 new jobs, doubled wage-employment in the fisheries sector, tripled foreign exchange earnings, generated tax-revenue thrice the Fisheries Ministries budget, and integrated the fisheries sector more fully into the wider Namibian economy. This has been achieved against a background of adverse environmental conditions (the "Benguela Nino" of 1993-94 in the fishery) a major reduction in the total allowable catch (to promote stock recovery) and a 30% reduction in fish landings."44

It may be argued that Namibian fisheries differ from those in most developing countries by being modern and industrialized with relatively few artisanal fishermen. Nevertheless, the Namibian example shows that fisheries can be managed in such a way as to recover the cost of management and its implementation.

While Namibia introduced rights-based fisheries with good results, the People's Republic of China replaced to a large extent State control of the inshore fleet with private ownership, as a part of its open-door policy. This was done without the necessary accompanying management measures and has led to thousands of new entrants into the marine fisheries, many of whom are not licensed. Smaller and smaller vessels are replacing large vessels in Chinese fishing grounds. This puts tremendous pressure on the enforcement machinery, which is basically designed to cater for fisheries with large vessels. The authorities also have problems in controlling indiscriminate fleet expansion and obtaining reliable statistics on fishing operations. Fishing pressure in Chinese waters is being reduced by displacing the large vessels into distant waters, fishing upon agreement within the EEZs of other nations, while fisheries in coastal waters are managed mainly by closed-season for two or three months per year. However, this method does not provide an incentive to reduce the fleet nor does it in any way control the working conditions on board the vessels. A moratorium on building new vessels, except to replace older ones, is meant to prevent further increase in the fleet, but is difficult to enforce, partly because of lack of coordination between State and local authorities. A comprehensive management regime covering both the capacity of the fleet and working conditions on board needs to be introduced if the Chinese fisheries are to avoid a major crisis in the near future.45


From the above, it is clear that the global fisheries situation has changed dramatically in recent years. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994, states not only the rights but also the obligations of coastal states to manage their 200 mile EEZs. Thus it is to be expected that all coastal nations will take measures accordingly over the next few years.

This will open the way for the creation of regulations ensuring the safety and well-being of fishermen that are inherently compatible with those promoting the sustainable utilization of fishstocks. The industrialized countries have spent decades trying to improve safety at sea on a voluntary basis. There is now general consensus amongst safety promoters that obligatory safety training is the prerequisite for any success. Linking safety requirements to fishing permits is a practical way to overcome the lack of motivation that has been a barrier to improved safety at sea for fishermen for so long. Safety at sea must be integrated into the general management of fisheries in all coastal states if safer working conditions for fishermen are to become a reality.

This applies no less to developing countries than developed ones. In many developed countries, the infrastructure for such a project, that is, the legal and institutional framework, already exists, although it may belong to different administrative sectors. In most developing countries however, such infrastructure is nonexistent. Therefore, in some countries, integration of safety into the general fisheries management will require revision of the existing management rules, while in countries initiating resource management, safety standards must be built in from the start.

In time, the governance of fisheries will include direct involvement of fisheries participants, conferring user rights along with responsibilities. The management regime should not only aim to match the fishing fleet to the potential yield of the resource, but also to control the seaworthiness of the vessels, the working conditions on board, and to ensure that the crew members have the necessary training and know-how. This is in full accordance with the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries:

"States should enhance through education and training programmes the education and skills of fishers and, where appropriate, their professional qualifications. Such programmes should take into account agreed international standards and guidelines".

and further:

"States should, as appropriate, maintain records of fishers which should, whenever possible, contain information on their service and qualifications, including certificates of competency, in accordance with their national laws".46

40 Kaplan, M. & Kite-Powell, H.L. Safety at Sea and fisheries management: fishermen's attitudes and the need for co-management. Marine Policy, November, 2000.

41 Fishermen's view on safety (in Icelandic) Öryggismál sjómanna. Fisheries Research Institute, University of Iceland, 1995.

42 Binkley, M. Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Dalhousie Unviersity, Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada. International Symposium on Safety and Working Conditions Aboard Fishing Vessels, Université de Quebec, Rimouski 1989.

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

44 Brandt, H. Namibianisation, An example to follow? Samudra Report, 23: 41 Sept 1999.

45 Mathew, S. Marine Fisheries, Chinese puzzle. Samudra 24: 45-49, Dec 1999.

46 Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries paragraphs 8.1.7 and 8.1.8.

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