EDITORIAL | There are far too many fatal fishing accidents

Photo: Mohammad Mahabubur Rahman
Photo: Mohammad Mahabubur Rahman – Fishing in Megha River, Bangladesh

Living in Australia, with its tiny fishing industry, we are largely insulated from the tragic toll of fatal fishing accidents in many other parts of the world.

While we have a fairly high level of awareness of fishing boat safety, thanks to our long time, and tireless, columnist Hagen Stehr and others, we still suffer our share of tragic accidents. Indeed, depending on who provides the statistics, fishing, along with forestry and farming, is the most dangerous or second most dangerous industry in Australia. It shares that place with road transport.

It is similarly risky in the other rich countries of the world. In Australia the farming, forestry and fishing sectors account for 24 per cent of occupational fatalities. The media industry, in contrast, involves only one per cent of them.

In the poorer parts of the world, particularly those with large fishing fleets, the known statistics are more alarming. I recently met and talked at length with Eric Holliday, the chief executive of the New Zealand-based but global Fish Safety Foundation.

His organisation works assiduously to reduce the mostly human errors that cause most fishing boat fatalities. What he told me about the problem provided me with a very loud wake-up call. He is trying very hard to obtain better, more comprehensive data so as to get a more accurate idea of the extent of the problem. As with the ferry sector that I have studied in detail, it is very difficult to obtain accurate data as to its magnitude.

As usual, the developed countries have quite good data. It is possible to extrapolate from that and the figures are horrifying. A probably conservative estimate from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) offers a figure of 24,000 fishing fatalities annually.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have compiled a database and, given my work with the ferry industry, I believe it could be up to three times as high as that. That would give an annual death toll of 72,000, 24 times as high as my estimate of 3,000 fatalities per annum in the ferry industry. Whatever the true figure is, it is a very large number.

I understand that the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is trying to compile more, and more accurate, data in an endeavour to reduce the problem. Without good data it is difficult to know where to start.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, which is usually known for its statistical underestimates, proclaims that there are about 15 million people engaged in the fishing industry worldwide. It further estimates that they work on 3.8 million vessels, mostly less than 24 metres LOA.

Obviously, the vast majority of those vessels operate from poor countries and are frequently poorly built, maintained and equipped. Their crews are usually very inadequately trained.

From my observation of and experience with both the ferry and fishing industries worldwide over the past fifty years, it seems to me that the safety problems of both industries are generally similar. Eric Holliday’s comments confirm that. Human factors seem to be the major cause of accidents.

In much of the world they arise ultimately from poverty and its resultant lassitude and fatalism. That can and is being eradicated in many of the problem areas, particularly in South East and East Asia. Nations such as China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh are developing rapidly.

Reducing poverty generally leads to improving education and improved, less-corrupt, governance. They make feasible the reduction in human error. They lead to better and more effective implementation of the presently mostly ignored regulations that encourage safety. All are good and positive trends.

While all those improvements tend to accrue as countries develop economically, they do so far too slowly and thus require a significant boost. That is where the richer countries, IMO and other organisations must contribute and help.

Aid or assistance in the form of safety education and training are the best places to start. That can be enhanced by assistance in providing safer boats and equipment as well as by encouraging the establishment of more effective SAR services.

Obviously, a competent seaman can sail practically any vessel anywhere, but it is better to attack the problem from both ends. The fishing industry, particularly in poorer countries, urgently requires both better, safer boats and better educated and trained seamen.

It has been good to learn that IMO at least recognises the problem and has announced its intention to work to reduce it. It has been heartening also to know, from my own contact with it, that the very effective Lloyd’s Register Foundation is “on the case” of both ferry and fishing boat safety. Good things will arise from this.

Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.