Improving fishing’s poor safety record

Heike Deggim. Credit: IMO

The global fishing industry does not have an acceptable safety record, but the creation of essential safety standards for fishing vessels has moved a significant step closer

The fishing sector experiences large numbers of fatalities every year, making it one of the most hazardous occupations in the world. As someone whose brother, father, grandfather, and many other family members still are or have been fishers, this issue means a great deal to me.

One of the main reasons fishing is so dangerous is the lack of an internationally binding safety regime for fishing vessels. There are approximately 1.6 million seafarers enjoying the protection provided by enforceable international treaties, but fishers are not among them. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation statistics, there are currently about 36 million fishers and people involved in freshwater fisheries and aquaculture in the world, of which, according to International Labour Organisation figures, every year an estimated 24,000 lose their lives. Surely, the life of a fisher is just as valuable as the life of a seafarer.

International treaties regulating the commercial shipping industry, such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, have been in force for decades, addressing mainly cargo and passenger ships. However, the key treaty applicable to fishing vessels, the 2012 Cape Town Agreement (CTA), is still not in force. This means there are no mandatory international requirements for the construction, stability, and associated seaworthiness of fishing vessels, and consequently neither for the lifesaving, communications, or fire protection equipment to be carried on board.

Over the past 43 years, there have been many attempts to implement an international safety regime for fishing vessels. It all started in 1977 with the adoption of the Torremolinos International Convention for the Safety of Fishing Vessels. The convention never managed to attract the number of ratifications necessary for it to enter into force; neither did it succeed in 1993 when the Torremolinos Protocol relating to the convention was adopted.

The 2012 CTA, which concluded after strenuous work and intensive discussions over a five-year period, is the latest regulatory attempt. To enter into force, it will need to be ratified by 22 states with an aggregate number of 3,600 fishing vessels operating on the high seas. The current number of ratifications stands at 13.

There is reason to be optimistic about the 2012 CTA. In October 2019, some 120 IMO member countries, 70 ministerial-level representatives, 30 international organisations, and 500 delegates attended the Torremolinos Ministerial Conference on Fishing Vessel Safety and Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, one of the largest fishing vessel conferences held in the history of the IMO.

Following the conference, the creation of essential safety standards for fishing vessels has moved a significant step closer with nearly 50 countries signing the Torremolinos Declaration, publicly indicating their determination to ratify the 2012 CTA by 11 October 2022 – the 10th anniversary of its adoption – to ensure its entry into force.

When the 2012 CTA does come into force, it will not only improve the safety of life at sea for hundreds of thousands of fishers worldwide, it will also be a key tool in combating IUU fishing and for supporting the sustainable development of an industry that feeds millions of people.

For me, coming from a long family line of fishers, the introduction of mandatory legislation to ensure the safety of fishing vessels and fishers in the framework regulating international shipping would be one of the highlights of my career. I am confident that we now have a real chance of making it finally happen.