The Marine Accident Investigation Branch's (MAIB's) Annual Report for 2016 provides a sobering reminder of how dangerous an occupation commercial fishing is.
A week after Farm Safety Week attracted widespread media attention on efforts to improve the poor safety record of the agriculture industry, which suffered 27 fatalities during 2016/17 (representing a fatal accident rate of 7.6 per 100,000), the MAIB's report confirmed that nine fishermen died during 2016 in six separate fatal accidents involving commercial fishing vessels between April and September. This represents a fatal accident rate of around 75 per 100,000.
Yes, that's right. Ten times higher than agriculture and 175 times higher than the UK all-industry fatality rate of 0.43 per 100,000.
In 2016 all the fishing industry's fatal accidents occurred during the spring and summer months, when the weather is usually set fair and fishermen try to maximise their catching opportunities. Fatigue was undoubtedly a factor, but pick up any MAIB accident investigation report (such as the recently published report on the fatal accident involving the FV Louisa in which three of the four crew perished) and you will find that fishing vessel accidents, particularly fatal accidents, are invariably the result of a combination and succession of, usually preventable, mistakes being made. Any break in that chain would invariably have prevented the accident occurring.
In addition to the nine fatalities, a further 31 serious injuries were reported to the MAIB, most involving life-changing injuries to the fishermen involved, such as loss of body parts.
In total 163 fishing vessels were involved in accidents that were reported to the MAIB in 2016 (up from 115 in 2015 - a 42% increase). As usual "loss of control" (a total or temporary loss of the ability to operate or manoeuvre) was the most common cause of these accidents (accounting for 69%). The number of collisions and groundings dropped, but there was a noticeable (three-fold) increase in the number of floodings/founderings, particularly in vessels less than 24m.
The only crumb of comfort to be found in the report is that the number of fishing vessels lost during 2016 (eight) was an all-time low. On average over the last ten years we have lost 16 fishing vessels every year. The average age of the vessels lost in 2016 was 30 years; the newest was just eight years old and the oldest were over 40 years old. With good care and maintenance older vessels can be just as safe as new vessels, but as we look forward to the prospect of increased catching opportunities for UK fishing vessels, it is vital that we develop a modern fleet built to the highest possible safety and crew welfare standards capable of exploiting our resources efficiently and sustainably. Seafish's construction standards for fishing vessels under 15m and 15-24m have been the required standard for any new fishing vessels being built since 2001 and we need to ensure that all vessels operating in the fleet meet this rigorous standard.
Accident prevention is the only sure-fire way to improve fishing safety and reduce these alarming accident statistics. Much of the training that fishermen are required to undertake focuses on how to respond following an accident (sea survival, first aid, fire-fighting). Whilst they are important, they provide knowledge and skills that should never need to be used if more fishermen assessed the specific risks onboard their vessels and took action to mitigate them. Most experienced fishermen have now completed the mandatory Safety Awareness training, which was introduced in 2005. This course provides fishermen with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to be able to undertake risk assessments and manage safety onboard their vessels. However, there is not enough evidence that this learning is being put into practice.
Every fishing vessel owner and skipper need to make the safety of their vessel and its crew their number one priority ahead of catching fish and shellfish. Controversial I know. Fishing is a business, which needs to turn a profit, but at what price, a human life? High performing vessels may be able to afford the latest safety equipment, but improving onboard safety does not necessarily require any expense. It costs nothing to identify and assess the risks onboard your vessel and many risks can be mitigated by making small, simple changes to working practices. Fishermen are great innovators and adapters when it comes to getting the best out of their vessel and their fishing gear. Just think what they could achieve if they turned that skill to improving onboard safety.
Take responsibility for safety onboard your vessel, NOW!
For more information on safety training courses, visit www.seafish.org/training.