Safety at Sea

Posted by Paul Williams, Chief Executive on 19 August 2011

On the back of Wednesday 19th August's news that Fish Fight's chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, had to be rescued when his fishing boat got into trouble off the Devon coast, safety at sea is definitely a hot topic.

For the fishing industry, enforcement is a tricky subject. When it comes to talking about compliance with fisheries management systems, no-one wants to say that enforcing rules when at sea is difficult.

Fishermen don't want to say it, because it sounds like they might be planning to bend the rules, and regulators won't because it sounds like an admission of failure. Everyone does admit though, that any system that doesn't engage fishermen is eventually bound to fail.

This brings me to the latest idea from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) that wearing life jackets should be compulsory for fishermen and one that I would personally support. It is a simple reality that once you go overboard at sea, your chances of survival and rescue are very low if you aren't wearing a life jacket. Some fishermen complain about the restriction of movement, but I know some skippers who insist on all crew wearing life jackets and who would testify that it is perfectly possible to work whilst wearing the newer, more compact designs.

So, making life jackets compulsory is a no-brainer, except for that tricky enforcement issue again. How on earth (or, more to the point, on sea) do you check who is or isn't wearing a life jacket? Of course, there will be the odd occasion when a Fisheries Inspection Vessel boards a fishing boat and catches crew without life jackets, but these will be rare.

What is needed is a change in culture amongst fishermen, so that it reaches a point where peer pressure rather than regulation ensures that everyone puts on a life jacket. At the moment, I still hear plenty of stories about young fishermen who are mocked if they take safety seriously.

Unfortunately, a changed culture is much harder to achieve than an adjustment in regulations. But not impossible; one of the changes that has already happened is that fishermen are increasingly recognising that they are custodians of the fish stocks. Simply put, fishing will never again be about landing as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

This brings us back to fisheries management, where fishermen now want to take part in developing solutions, which means that we are now in a better position to bring about behavioural change. So all we need to do now is get to a position where not wearing a life jacket is seen as the stupid option, not the brave one.

Paul Williams, Chief Executive