Circumstances are sometimes downright treacherous because of weather, the condition of a vessel, a captain’s decisions, or a combination of those factors.
Fortunately, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is working to improve safety for crews at sea. It recognises the best way to accomplish this is through the Cape Town Agreement (CTA), an international treaty that outlines fishing vessel standards and aims to protect the safety of crews; the treaty must enter into force to be effective. At its 100th session last week, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) noted that this would make a significant contribution to the safety of fishing vessels and fishers and, because the agreement includes ship inspection protocols, could support initiatives to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The CTA would save fishers’ lives by driving improvements in vessel safety standards globally, including regions such as the Arctic and Antarctic where crews often fish in extremely hazardous conditions.
Illicit fishing jeopardizes the health and sustainability of the world’s fisheries, undermines law-abiding fishers, and has been linked to crimes such as piracy, human trafficking, and arms and narcotics smuggling. In their quest for profit at any cost, IUU fishers may cut corners on vessel standards and crew safety, and instances of horrific treatment of workers at sea by some captains have been well documented.
Many illegal operators have evaded detection and prosecution for decades because of lax oversight and patchwork governance. But numerous anti-IUU initiatives—at the national, regional, and international levels—are showing promise, offering hope that many illegal fishers will abandon the crime as the risk of being caught outweighs the likely gains. States around the world can provide a consistent and minimum set of rules to combat IUU fishing, ensure decent working conditions, and safeguard fishers by implementing three United Nations treaties:
When applied together effectively—which would include harmonizing inspections of fishing vessels—these treaties can help guard against overexploitation of fish stocks and protect the people catching them. The measures also help ensure that all captains and crews on the ocean and in port are operating under the same set of rules. Accomplishing that simple goal has always been tricky because of the numerous nations that have regulatory authority over any given fishing voyage, and the varying degrees to which those authorities enforce the rules. For example, a vessel may be registered in one country, owned by people in another, licensed to fish in the waters of a third government, captained by a resident of a fourth nation, and sell its catch in many other States. Responsibility for enforcing all those rules lies with many States, including those that register vessels, accept them into ports, import seafood, or provide crew and observers to foreign-flagged boats.
Although the treaties won’t resolve all the complicated legal issues involved in policing commercial fishing around the world, they should help bring some consistency to how rules are interpreted and enforced.
Two of the treaties have entered into force: The PSMA, which strengthens and harmonizes inspection of foreign-flagged vessels in ports, and C188, which ensures decent working conditions and avoids labour abuse on fishing vessels. To date, 57 governments have adopted the PSMA, and 12 have ratified C188.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for the CTA. For the agreement to enter into force, 22 States with a combined 3,600 eligible fishing vessels need to ratify or accede to it. Often, responsibility for safety of fishers falls to multiple national institutions, including the coast guard and agencies that regulate fisheries, transport, and other maritime activity. Coordination among those institutions and the fishing industry is essential to ratify and effectively implement the CTA. By doing so, governments can bring the safety rules for fishing vessels in line with those for merchant, passenger, cargo, and other ships and help end practices that place crews and observers at risk. Without the CTA in force, there are no mandatory global safety regulations for fishing vessels.
Momentum supporting the CTA has been increasing. In September, the Russian Federation confirmed that it had met the technical requirements for the CTA, meaning that the country’s standards are aligned in preparation for accession to the CTA. The government also said entry into force of the CTA will significantly improve safety for fishers worldwide and agreed to develop a roadmap and timeline for ratification.
In October, the Philippines hosted a seminar on IUU fishing and vessel safety and committed to analyse its fishing vessel safety laws with the goal of ratifying and implementing the CTA. Indonesia held a seminar in November at which transport and fisheries authorities and other stakeholders agreed to continue cooperating. Participants also aim to produce a cost-benefit analysis that will inform a roadmap towards potential ratification. Both countries acknowledged that entry into force of the CTA would improve safety of their fishers working all over the world.
The IMO has formally announced that it plans to co-host an International Conference on Fishing Vessel Safety with Spain in the autumn of 2019 to promote ratification of the CTA seven years after its adoption.
“At present, entry into force of the Cape Town Agreement still requires the ratification of an additional 12 States with no less than 2,580 fishing vessels,” said Heike Deggim, Director of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Division. “We hope that the planned Conference on fishing vessel safety will help push the momentum forwards.”
States must continue to act on these issues, both in international forums such as IMO MSC, and nationally by ratifying and implementing the PSMA, C188, and CTA.
Peter Horn directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ending illegal fishing project.