Safety Matters: How Stopping Illegal Fishing Can Save Lives

International standards on vessel safety would protect workers and reduce maritime crime

Inundated fishing boat

A fishing boat is inundated due to high winds off Thailand in September 2016. No casualties were reported, but that’s not always the case in the dangerous profession of fishing.

© Madaree Tohlala/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

Safety always matters, but in some activities—industrial fishing, for example—the consequences of unsafe practices can be swift and tragic. This is a particular concern for crews involved in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing because they are more likely than other fishers to work on vessels without basic safety equipment or protocols.

Illegal fishing, estimated to account for up to US$23.5 billion worth of fish each year, also represents a major threat to the world’s fisheries—90 percent of which are either overfished or fished to the limit—and to the marine environment: Illicit fishermen often use banned gear, fish in closed areas, and ignore catch limits and other rules intended to maintain a productive and healthy ocean.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Maritime Organization (IMO), and International Labour Organization (ILO) have acknowledged the links between IUU fishing and crew welfare, including safety. The ILO estimates that more than 24,000 deaths occur every year in fisheries, making fishing one of the most dangerous professions in the world. Further, of the classes of ships at sea, fishing vessels have some of the worst safety records. Fishers regularly operate dangerous equipment and often work extremely long hours in hazardous conditions. Injury rates are high, vessel owners rarely conduct risk assessments to ensure worker safety, and crews seldom have access to proper medical care.

In 2012, the IMO adopted the Cape Town Agreement on the Safety of Fishing Vessels, which sets detailed standards for the design, construction, and inclusion of safety equipment on commercial fishing vessels over 24 meters long operating on the high seas. It also outlines rules to protect crews and on-board observers, and calls for inspections that look at fisheries, labour, and safety issues holistically instead of separately. The treaty will enter into force once 22 parties have joined, as long as they have a combined total of at least 3,600 fishing vessels that meet the agreement’s length and high seas requirements.

Aside from the Cape Town Agreement, however, there is no international binding regulation designed to ensure that fishing vessels are built, maintained, and operated with crew safety in mind. What’s worse, the lack of mandatory, unique, and permanent identifying numbers makes it challenging for authorities to identify specific vessels engaged in illegal activities and to track misconduct or gather evidence when they suspect unlawful activity.

As a result, vessel owners—even those who have been found fishing illegally or engaging in other maritime offenses, such as human rights and labour abuses—can often return to sea and continue operating outside the law without being traced. Owners who choose to operate illicitly can carry on for years without having to produce accurate records of their crew, activities, operating conditions, or compliance status. This lack of transparency in the fishing sector enables criminals to more easily perpetrate other crimes at sea, such as piracy, human trafficking, and smuggling, all under the guise of commercial fishing.

By focusing on the links between IUU fishing and other crimes at sea, The Pew Charitable Trusts hopes to show how improving the identification and tracking of fishing vessels could enhance safety and security, particularly for crews on those ships. All governments that register fishing vessels and all fishery management organizations should:

  • Require that every vessel 12 or more meters in length and at least 100 gross tons has an IMO number, a unique and permanent identifier similar to a serial number, that stays with the ship from construction to scrapping. IMO numbers are the first point of reference in identifying ships and could help curtail illegal fishing and improve safety at sea.
  • Mandate that all fishing boats and governing bodies use vessel monitoring systems (VMS), a tracking technology developed specifically for fisheries management. Aside from securely monitoring vessel movements, the systems can help identify activity consistent with fishing—which can help authorities effectively monitor marine reserves, for example—and allow vessel masters to report catch data.
  • Require that all commercial fishing vessels use automatic identification systems (AIS), which broadcast vessel positions. Originally designed to prevent collisions, AIS broadcasting can be used to cross-check VMS data and improve safety for those working at sea.
  • Ensure that all crew and on-board observers of commercial fishing boats are able to work under safe conditions and that vessels meet the safety standards outlined in the Cape Town Agreement.

It is clear that dangerous work environments and substandard conditions are all too common throughout the commercial fishing sector, and even more so among illegal operations. By ratifying the Cape Town Agreement and taking steps to close the net on illegal fishing, governments and other fishery managers can help improve safety for crews and security for all who work on the water.

Julie Janovsky is acting director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ending illegal fishing project.

Frozen tuna

Workers in Thailand unload hundreds of tons of frozen tuna from a vessel. Cargo holds on fishing boats can get as cold as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit, among the many reasons to improve policies and ensure worker safety.

© Luke Duggleby

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