Is It Safe To Go Fishing?

Sep 8, 2009

by Douglas B. Stevenson, Esq.
Director, Center for Seafarers' Rights
The Seamen's Church Institute

Most of the articles in this section have been written with cargo vessel mariners in mind. Some topics I have addressed apply to mariners on cargo vessels as well as to those on fishing vessels. Seafarers who work on fishing vessels, however, have a dubious distinction that separates them from those working on cargo vessels. Commercial fishing is much more dangerous. It is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates, 24,000 fatalities occur in fisheries worldwide each year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that non-fatal injuries are also very common in the fishing industry. The statistics do not even show the extent of the problem. Fishing industry safety experts believe that fishing vessel injuries are grossly under-reported.

Commercial fishing is dangerous because it is allowed to be dangerous. There are few international standards that apply to fishing vessels. There are minimal national standards in many countries. There is little flag state control and no port state control of fishing vessels. The fishing industry has worked hard to avoid regulation. It is an industry that historically has been characterized by small family enterprises, deep traditions, secret fishing spots, competition for diminishing fish stocks, conflict between different fishery sectors (such as trawlers and drift netters), strong-minded independence and low union representation. When regulatory bodies attempt to draft standards for fishing vessels, there is a reluctance to proceed because fisheries interests are usually not well represented in the meetings. When attempts are made to include fisheries interests, the various competing sectors of the fishing industry seem to agree only on their abhorrence of being regulated and the debate then turns from fishing vessel safety to who gets to catch the remaining fish.

The International Maritime Organization, ILO and FAO have attempted to address some of the fishing vessel safety issues in the Torremolinos Convention and the STCW-F Convention. Although these conventions apply only to large fishing vessels over 24 meters in length, their adoption by flag states would be an excellent first step towards improving safety on fishing vessels. Unfortunately, neither of these conventions has come into force because not enough countries have ratified them.

Meanwhile, men and women who work on fishing vessels continue to be maimed and killed at alarming rates. It is time to say: “enough is enough”!  Sentimental illusions of historic fisheries are no longer valid - if they ever were. Commercial fishing is moving farther and farther offshore in search of scarce fish on dangerous industrialized vessels that are internationally owned, operated and flagged.

Fortunately, there is an opportunity for all of us to help protect our fellow mariners who work on fishing vessels. That opportunity lies in the ILO. The ILO has begun a process to develop a comprehensive ILO Convention and Recommendation concerning living and working conditions on fishing vessels. The ILO secretariat and ILO members have begun the preparatory work with a goal of adopting a Fishing Vessel Convention and Recommendation by the end of 2005. The ILO needs our help and advice. You can help by doing the following:

  • Urge your national government to put a high priority on developing, adopting and enforcing safety, living conditions and working conditions standards for fishing vessels in national law, the IMO and the ILO.
  • Share your experience, ideas, and recommendations on fishing vessel safety and conditions with any port chaplain so that the International Christian Maritime Association can give them to the ILO.

We must step in to protect the seas’ most valuable resource:  the human beings who live and work on ships.