Thousands of accidental deaths at sea worldwide every year

by Thomas Jensen
Fishing vessel

Statutory safety concepts for small-scale fisheries not in place.

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 3 2023.

Fishing is one of the most dangerous industries in the world. ILO (International Labour Organization) estimates, up to 24,000 fishermen die every year in accidents on fishing vessels. That is more than ten times as many as in merchant and passenger shipping. It is very difficult to define internationally uniform safety regulations, and there are no binding standards, especially in small-scale fishing.

When it comes to fishing, many people still hold a romantic image of the profession. The endless expanse of sea promising a fulfillment of the age-old longing for freedom and adventure to many of us. On board, that long-lost forgotten world can be lived out. The struggle against the unpredictability of the harsh sea strengthens the sense of camaraderie between fishermen. Unfortunately, the reality is very different. Fishing is a backbreaking job and fishermen are exposed to countless risks and hazards every single day on board. There are hardly any regulations for working hours and statutory breaks, the so-called “work-life balance” which is extremely important to many of us today, but is sadly lacking in fishing. In the industrialized countries, there is also a demanding training profile, which includes, among other things, fishing techniques, nautical science, engine/mechanical knowledge and biology. Ship safety, fire protection and first aid are also on the curriculum, but not yet everywhere in the world. In many countries, especially in the poorer regions, fishing is a typical “unskilled job” that can be practised by anyone without a lot of in-depth knowledge. In some areas, even forced labour is still possible on fishing vessels. The high number of accidents with fatalities and injuries gives an idea of the consequences for safety and health while at sea.

The number of fishing vessels has fallen significantly since the turn of the millennium. According to the latest SOFIA report from 2022, the global fishing fleet shrank by almost a tenth to 4.1 million vessels between 2015 and 2020 alone. Of these, only about 45,000 vessels were larger than 24m, the majority (81 per cent) were small open boats less than 12m in length – and this is one of the main causes of the safety problems in the fishing industry, especially since these small open boats are mainly operated in Asia and Africa. Even in these regions, people are well aware of the risks and dangers at sea. Despite this, there are hardly any regulations or mandatory requirements with respect to the safety of the boats and their crews. Construction and equipment regulations in most countries usually only apply to larger vessels over 24m and are only adhered to by small boat operators on a voluntary basis, if at all. Their crews mostly consist of unskilled workers who not only lack seamanship and fishing-specific knowledge, but often also the necessary awareness of the hazards and dangers. Under the constant pressure for profitable catches in order to be ­economically viable, some crews take risks that are difficult to assess. Often straying too far from the coast, going out to catch on the high seas even when storms are imminent and in their often poorly maintained and inadequately marked boats, they are constantly in danger of capsizing or being rammed by larger ships.

It is not possible to determine exactly how many fishermen are exposed to such dangers, as the statistics collected in many countries do not calculate fishermen separately, but they are grouped together with workers in fish processing plants and aquaculture, sometimes even together with agricultural, hunting and forestry workers. The FAO estimates, with some uncertainty, the number of full-time marine fishermen worldwide at around 15 million of whom around 98 per cent work on vessels smaller than 24 m. If one also includes part-time and freshwater fishermen and people involved in aquaculture, this number increases to 36 million. When comparing fatal accidents in ‘normal’ jobs, the fishing industry scores alarmingly badly. In Australia, the death rate of fishermen is 18 times the national average. In Denmark, fishermen are up to 30 times more likely to die on the job than those working on land. Even in the US, the mortality rate among fishermen is 16 times higher than that of fire-fighters or police. In spite of the fact that the safety standards in such countries count among the best in the world in terms of accident prevention, survival training and search and rescue after accidents at sea. In many developing countries the problems are likely to be much greater and comparisons are difficult as there are large gaps in reporting of accidents and statistics are correspondingly uncertain. Conservative estimates suggest that the fatality rate in Sri Lanka’s offshore fisheries could be ten times higher than in Norway. In Guinea, around 500 deaths per 100,000 fishermen are estimated each year. In other countries on the West African coast, the mortality rate in small-scale fishing is said to vary in the range of 300 to 1,000 per 100,000 fishermen. Figures from South Africa show 585 deaths per 100,000 fishermen.

Maintaining records of the causes of accidents is often inadequate

More than half of all fatalities are directly related to the vessel sinking, mostly due to capsizing, damage, collision, fire or explosion. If the ship is lost, the likelihood that crew members will lose their lives increases. The second leading cause of fatal accidents in fishing is falling overboard. Fishermen who do not wear buoyancy aids or who venture out to sea alone are particularly at risk here. The third most common cause of death among fishermen is serious injuries on deck, such as from falling, broken lines or motor winches. Almost every fisherman has, at some point, suffered a minor injury at sea or at least seen someone else on board have an accident. Non-fatal injuries are common in the fisheries, but the documenting of such incidents by national health services and social security agencies in many countries suffer from serious shortfalls. Detailed records are very important in clearly identifying the causes of accidents and enable us to define preventive and/or protective measures. Only those who can clearly understand where, why and how accidents occur can take appropriate countermeasures.

Accidents at sea will probably never be entirely preventable with absolute certainty. The working conditions on fishing ships are unique, cannot be planned in every detail and therefore remain potentially dangerous. Some risks are almost unpredictable, such as engine defects, sudden changes in weather or the specific working conditions on the fishing grounds. Other factors can be influenced to some extent, such as the design, construction and regularity of ship maintenance. It becomes particularly hazardous when the human factor is not included or only insufficiently included in the design and implementation of any security concept. Poor training, lack of experience and skills, carelessness, understaffed or incorrectly staffed ship crews, fatigue and working under pressure are important risk factors that are among the main reasons for accidents and disasters in the fishing sector. These factors can be summed up by stating that the greatest hazards always arise when fishing vessels are operated in an unsafe condition, at unsafe locations, at unsafe times and with unsafe crews.

Risks and dangers lurk in almost every corner of the vessel


Even with all due care and precaution, certain residual risks still remain. In general, these risks are much larger on small open boats than on trawlers. Trawlers have the best technical equipment, are perfectly designed and built for purpose and are professionally piloted by competent staff. While there are dangers from barn door-sized trawl boards, huge winds, and gigantic sweep lines moving freely across wet, slippery decks on swaying ships in rough seas, but even breaking the surf in the shore zone on a small open boat launching from the beach can be a life-threatening adventure. Working on board a moving ship places extremely high demands on fishermen. They often have to adopt working postures that are physically demanding, tiring and associated with a high risk of injury. This hazard is exacerbated by the extraordinarily long working hours they often have to endure. Smaller ships in particular are also threatened by loss of stability, for example when hauling in heavy nets or the catch slipping in rough seas. This increases the risk of capsizing, and fishermen falling overboard. The age of the ships is also an on-going concern when it comes to safety. Newer, more modern ships are clearly much better equipped with the latest technology in terms of working conditions and safety equipment. In many industrialized countries, this would entail “telemedical concepts” with the help of which the ­appropriately trained crew members can receive qualified help and support via satellite and Internet in the treatment of colleagues who have had an accident. However, this valuable, often even life-saving option is rarely available on older ships and therefore the age of the fishing fleets is of considerable importance in safety matters. However, statistics from Lloyd’s Register of Shipping show that the average age of fishing vessels over 24m worldwide is now more than 25 years.

Reliable data is not even available for small-scale fishing sectors. However, it is hard to imagine that manual fishermen renew their boats more frequently than the owners of large vessels. The fact that most of these small boats are in relatively poor condition and therefore pose a serious safety risk is also sufficiently documented by numerous field studies, some of which were commissioned by the FAO. In some sea areas, small-scale manual fisheries are further threatened by rampant predatory and illegal fishing. Overfishing of fish stocks close to the coast forces many small-scale fishermen to go further and further out to sea in their inadequately equipped boats, where they are exposed to enormous ­dangers. Not only caused by winds, weather and sea conditions, but also by predatory fishermen. They turn off their navigation lights and tracking systems to avoid detection. This increases the risk of collision, which often has deadly consequences for small-scale fishermen. Unfortunately, not all states that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sufficiently fulfil their responsibility to ensure safety at sea for all ships flying their flag.

The diverse nature of fisheries makes any uniform solutions very difficult to implement

Since there are obvious connections between the level of professional training of fishermen, the level of equipment on fishing vessels and safety at sea, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has initiated and implemented dozens of fishing projects since its inception. One of the most important initiatives was probably the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries published in 1995, which defines voluntary guidelines for environmentally conscious and sustainable fishing. With the manual on Safety at sea for small-scale fishers, the FAO recently presented aims to improve the culture of safety awareness among fishermen, reduce the number of accidents and increase the chances of surviving accidents. Available in multiple languages, the book provides guidance on safety issues associated with working on small fishing vessels, such as fire and deck safety, lighting and ventilation, essential lifesaving equipment and navigational safety. In addition, the reader learns which controls and safety procedures should be carried out and are useful before any fishing trips. Practical tips for surviving at sea are also included in the manual.

Although the safety risks in fishing have been known for a long time, it has not yet been possible to establish internationally binding minimum standards for this sector. A first attempt was the 1914 Convention on Safety at Sea, called SOLAS for Safety of Life at Sea, which was initiated after the sinking of the Titanic in 1911. Since then, SOLAS has been one of the most important international agreements as it defines general standards for the construction, equipment and operation of ships as part of the basic requirements for their safety. However, with the exception of Chapter V, which primarily deals with aspects of navigational safety, SOLAS does not apply to fishing vessels. The amendments and extensions to SOLAS adopted in 1929 and 1948 did not remedy this shortcoming of the Convention. When the International Maritime Organization (IMO) was founded in 1958 as a special organization of the UN to regulate international shipping, one of its first activities was to attempt to bring the safety standards on fishing ships nearer to the level of those in merchant shipping. After all, a fisherman’s life is as precious as that of any other seafarer. The initiative was again futile: when SOLAS was amended in 1960, the fisheries industry fell through the cracks again.

As a partial success with SOLAS 1960,, however, IMO was able to get those involved to adopt three resolutions on fishing vessels. The first concerned equipping vehicles with rescue equipment for the crews. The second required all governments to inform the IMO of the extent to which SOLAS requirements are already being applied to fishing vessels. The third resolution dealt with the ­stability and seaworthiness of ­fishing vessels. The conference also decided that SOLAS will be continuously revised and adapted to the ever-changing conditions. Fishing industries also benefit from this, albeit not to the extent hoped for or that are necessary. Despite these failures, those involved in the SOLAS process cannot be accused of having no interest in the safety of fishermen and fishing vessels. The devil is in the detail, as the global fishing industry is extremely diverse and many different methods are used. The number of ships alone ranges from primitive one-man canoes and dugout canoes to huge, highly mechanized factory trawlers. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to formulate universally applicable, uniform standards and guidelines that are binding for everyone.

Even any small ­successes would be some progress

Despite these limitations, there have been a number of initiatives in recent years, both at national and international level, aimed at improving safety in fisheries. For example, the ILO, IMO and FAO, the three organizations of the United Nations, jointly presented the Code of Safety for Fishermen and Fishing vessels decades ago. Part A, adopted in 1968, deals with elementary Health and Safety Practices for Skippers and Crews. Part B (Health and Safety Requirements for the Construction and Equipment of Fishing Vessels) from 1974 is a guide to the formation of relevant national laws and regulations. However, the application is once again limited to fishing vessels with lengths of 24 m and more. There are still no internationally standardized safety regulations for small vessels between 12 and 24 meters in length and for the many hundreds of thousands of small boats under 12 m. The safety of these vessels is left to individual national regulations, which can vary in severity, and compliance with which is more or less controlled or often even absent altogether.

Both the 1977 Torremolino Convention, updated in 1993, and the STCW-F principles that came into force in 2012, which define minimum requirements for certification and training for crews, are limited to ships with lengths of 24 meters or more. This also applies to the Cape Town Agreement, adopted in 2012, which sets out the criteria for the seaworthiness of fishing vessels. They affect the availability of ­life-saving ­appliances, communication equipment and fire protection to an extent that can only be provided on fishing vessels with a minimum length of 24 metres. The demand to finally create significantly more safety for small-scale fishing on small boats, which make up the bulk of the global fishing fleet, through uniform, internationally binding minimum standards, will therefore remain a major challenge for the fishing industry in the coming years. Even small measures, such as the obligation to wear buoyancy aids, regular emergency exercises, training courses on how to behave in the event of accidents at sea or carrying emergency signals that make it easier to find people who have fallen overboard, could ensure that thousands of fishermen would no longer lose their lives every year at sea.

Manfred Klinkhardt

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