Flagship Treaty Will Improve Safety at Sea in Notoriously Dangerous Fishing Industry

The International Maritime Organization’s Cape Town Agreement will significantly reduce the exploitation of the oceans and the people who depend on them

Flagship Treaty Will Improve Safety at Sea in Notoriously Dangerous Fishing Industry
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Experts expect an international agreement on vessel safety standards to greatly reduce risks to commercial fishing crews. The industry has long been one of the most hazardous in the world.
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Vessel safety is important for anyone working at sea and is especially critical in the fishing industry due to a global gap in standards for the sector. In particular, vessels used to conduct illegal fishing often lack sufficient on-board safety equipment. Unscrupulous operators ignore regulations governing ship modifications, operate for extended periods without undergoing safety inspections, and fish in dangerous weather. These operators are also less likely to maintain decent working and living conditions than those who follow the rules.

To help close this gap, leaders from the maritime and fisheries sectors met 21-23 October in Torremolinos, Spain—the birthplace of the first global treaty on fishing vessel safety. Representatives from more than 100 States convened to demonstrate their commitment to improving safety at sea and tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

In 1977, the Torremolinos International Convention for the Safety of Fishing Vessels was adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). This treaty, the first concerning what is commonly referred to as safety of life at sea, unfortunately did not generate enough support to bring it into force. Nor did the Torremolinos Protocol, which in 1993 amended and superseded the 1977 agreement. The issue was not forgotten, though, and in 2012 the IMO adopted the Cape Town Agreement (CTA) on fishing vessel safety, which replaced the Convention and Protocol and updated provisions to address concerns relating to regional differences in fishing vessel construction and operation. The IMO returned to Torremolinos last week to host the Ministerial Conference on Fishing Vessel Safety and Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing to promote the CTA as a tool that governments can use to improve safety and working and living conditions of fishers, tackle IUU fishing, and address associated environmental concerns.

At the Conference, two States deposited their instruments of ratification and 48 States signed a political declaration committing to ratify the CTA by 2022 (10 years after its adoption). By declaring their intention to act now, these global maritime and fisheries leaders have surpassed the 22 States and 3,600 eligible vessels needed for its entry into force in 2023. But the work is not done. “Why are we failing our fisher folk by not providing them with these protections? Where is the horn that would blare this message to the world?” asked the Honourable Peter Thomson, the United Nations Secretary-General’s special envoy for the ocean. “Well, the horn is here in Torremolinos. Ladies and gentlemen, we are blowing it, and it’s loud and clear. If we ratify the Cape Town Agreement, we will correct these wrongs.”

This progress reflects increasing understanding of the CTA’s benefits and the growing momentum around it. Since 2016, the number of ratifications has more than doubled from six to 13, and more States than ever are asking for technical and legislative support to put these rules in place—a necessary and critical step in implementing any international agreement. The Ministerial Conference recognized the important role of the CTA in ensuring safe and legal fishing and urged States to implement and apply the CTA in their capacities as flag, port, and coastal States. The Conference also strongly urged all States to take actions to prevent, deter, and eliminate the proliferation of IUU fishing activities.

As the international community prepares for the CTA to enter into force, governments have the opportunity to focus on harmonised implementation of the agreement with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Port State Measures Agreement, which strengthens port controls to prevent illegally caught fish from entering the global market, and the International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention No. 188, which sets standards for decent working and living conditions in commercial fishing. Such harmonisation will make it increasingly difficult for unscrupulous operators to benefit from gaps in global governance at the expense of fishers and fisheries.

Peter Horn is a project director for international fisheries at The Pew Charitable Trusts. Courtney Farthing is principal associate for international fisheries at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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The international community increasingly recognizes that substandard working conditions and poor safety standards are a hallmark of vessels that are used in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.