Keeping our last hunter-gatherers safe

Posted by Simon Potten, Head of Safety, Training and Services on 24 July 2014

Simon Potten Head of Safety, Training and Services at Seafish, the industry authority on seafood, reflects on the latest figures from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), but says there is still more to be done to improve UK commercial fishermen's safety…

The latest figures from MAIB indicate positive progress toward improved safety for the UK's commercial fishermen. Four lives lost during 2013 is a historic low, but is still four too many.

Fishing remains the most dangerous peacetime occupation. Our research* suggests that a quarter of UK commercial fishermen have experienced an incident at sea where their life was in danger in the past year.

The safe return of Aberdeen fishermen, Jim Reid and David Irvine earlier this summer was an all too infrequent happy ending after an unimaginable period of worry for family and friends.

Among the most significant contributing factors to accidents at sea during 2013, the MAIB suggests failure to wear Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) was one of the most common causes of avoidable accidents and deaths.

Working in partnership with fishermen's federations, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, the RNLI, the Fishermen's Mission Seafish is backing a Fishing Industry Safety Group (FISG) initiative to promote the wearing of personal flotation devices (PFDs) by fishermen.

FISG aims to ensure that every commercial fisherman in the UK is provided with a PFD. Fishermen told us that traditional lifejackets were too cumbersome and actually made working on boats more dangerous. This is why we are partnering with maritime safety experts Mullion who have designed lightweight and compact PFDs that inflate on impact with water.

Fitting snug around the neck, these PFDs allow fishermen to go about their work without the PFD getting in the way. So far, around 7,000 fishermen in Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of England and Wales have benefitted from the initiative, and thanks to extra funding from Seafarers UK we will be handing out another 1,500 PFDs at the Bournemouth Skipper Expo in October.

However, a PFD is useless unless worn and this is the message we need to get across to
fishermen. As highlighted by our 'Sea You Home Safe' awareness campaign, by wearing a PFD fishermen not only increase their chances of surviving if they go overboard, but should the worst happen it also increases the chances of a body being recovered.

Whilst some may think this is little comfort to family at such a tragic time, please consider this - without a body, families cannot register a death for seven years, close a bank account or settle life insurance or wills.

The heart-breaking story of Megan Wildig who lost her partner Steven Robertson whilst pregnant with their first child and could not name him on her daughter Ava's birth ertificate highlights the extra pain families often have to go through when a loved one is lost at sea.  

Commercial fishermen are on the front line of the seafood industry, they are our last hunter-gatherers and with that comes greater risk.  Safe fishing practices are vital to ensuring a sustainable and prosperous future for the industry and the families and communities that rely on it.

Industry safety is a primary concern for Seafish and we remain committed to working with the fishing industry to raise safety awareness and promote best practice. But we cannot achieve this alone. To reduce UK commercial fishing fatalities further, it is crucial our fishermen are equally committed to changing their own safety habits across the board.

Should the necessary behavioural change not happen, we agree with the MAIB's recommendation that a mandatory requirement to wear PFDs aboard UK fishing vessels should be implemented.

However we recognise the introduction of additional legislation would also increase the regulatory burden on the UK's fishing industry, so we will continue to urge our commercial fishermen to register for their free PFD on the Seafish website while this remains voluntary.

There has never been a year when no fishermen have died. Let's all commit to achieving this. To lose even a single fisherman in a year is unacceptable.