Tragic loss of life at sea has to end

Posted by Simon Potten, Head of Safety and Training on 09 August 2016

The publication last week of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch's (MAIB) Annual Report for 2015 provides an opportunity for the fishing industry and all those actively trying to improve fishing safety to take stock of how well we are doing.

The two most reliable indicators of fishing safety are the number of fishing vessels lost and, tragically, the number of fishermen lost. In 2015 thirteen fishing vessels were lost, representing 0.23% of the fleet.

What is more saddening is that more fishermen have lost lives in 2016 already, than in the whole of 2015, which we revealed last month ( see here). This is unacceptable and it is vital that the industry as a whole do more to improve the safety record of the fishing industry.

The following extract from the MAIB's report clearly shows improvements since 2005, but we have not yet been able to improve on 2012, when we lost the fewest ever number of fishing vessels.

simon graph 1

Grounding (5), foundering (2) and capsize (2) were the most common causes of vessel loss in 2015, but these incidents may have been prevented with better navigation, watchkeeping, maintenance and suitable stability awareness training.

Seven fishermen died in 2015. Far fewer than the number of vessels lost (which confirms that in the majority of cases when vessels are lost, the crew successfully abandons ship and is rescued), but this is still seven deaths too many.

The following extract from the MAIB's report clearly shows improvements since 2005, but again we have not yet been able to improve on 2013, when we saw the lowest ever number of deaths.  

simon graph 2

The majority of these deaths have resulted from fishermen accidentally falling overboard or ending up in the sea after their vessel sank. We have recently run a major campaign to encourage fishermen to wear Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) whilst working on open decks at sea and we are now promoting Personal Locator Beacons, but these initiatives are only addressing the symptom and not the cause of these fatalities. We have to remove the risk and stop fishermen falling over the side in the first place; not easy given the nature of this type of work. However, keeping the crew onboard is the only guaranteed way of preventing further man overboard fatalities.

The seafood industry acknowledges their responsibility in helping the UK (and worldwide) fishing industry improve its safety record and has approved the spending of almost £3.5m of levy on safety and training in the current Seafish 3-year Corporate Plan (2015-2018).

With four dedicated teams at Seafish working to improve Fishermen's Safety, it is one of our most important areas of work and has a simple but ambitious objective - 'zero deaths attributed to poor working practices over a 12 month period'. We simply cannot accept fishermen dying whilst working to catch the fish and shellfish that we eat. Death should not be a price that our fishermen and their families have to pay. However, is our goal achievable or is it "simply a pipe dream"?

Well, Alaska, whose fishing industry is featured in the popular TV show 'Deadliest Catch', recently announced that it had just had a year in which no fishermen died. This has also been achieved in Iceland, which begs the question: if this can be achieved in these more hostile waters, then why can't we achieve it here in the UK?

Seafish are taking several steps to tackle this issue. Our multi award winning 'Sea You Home Safe' campaign continues to highlight the importance of fishermen wearing PFD's when at sea on open decks.  We are also working closely with the fishing industry and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) through our membership of the Fishing Industry Safety Group to see what lessons we can learn from Alaska and Iceland, and we will seek to put those lessons into practice here in the UK and, with renewed vigour and enthusiasm, redouble our efforts to help owners make the 5,746 UK-registered commercial fishing vessels a safer place for the 11,500 crew to work.

We are just about to embark on our last big EU-funded programme of fishermen's training, helping to bring up-to-date, and develop, skills and knowledge, and I would encourage every commercial fisherman to take maximum advantage of this over the next two years. We don't know if there will be another funding stream post-Brexit, so use it while it's available.

There is a clear link between training and safety, but simply attending a course is not enough on its own. The skills and knowledge gained need to be vigilantly applied in the workplace (onboard your vessel) and practiced on a regular basis (through drills). Diligence and regular drills are essential to create as safe a working environment as possible upon all vessels.