For safety at sea

Print edition : February 02, 2002

At a regional workshop in Chennai, experts of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and delegates from Bay of Bengal Programme member-countries address issues relating to the risks involved in fishing at sea.

FISHING at sea, which provides livelihood for 36 million families across the globe, is considered one of the most dangerous occupations. The Occupational Safety and Health Branch of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that every year 24,000 persons die while fishing at sea. The actual number of deaths could be much higher, given that the estimate covers only countries that have a dependable database on the subject.

In several countries, mortality rates in the fishing industry far exceed the national average for occupational fatalities.-

In a number of countries, mortality rates in fishing far exceed the national average for occupational fatalities. For instance, in the United States the rate is 160 per lakh, which is 25 to 30 times higher than the national average for occupational deaths; in Australia the rate is 143 per lakh, about 18 times the national average of 8.1 per lakh. The United Kingdom reported a figure of 77 in 1995-96 against 23.2 in the mining and quarrying industry, the second highest in the category of occupational deaths. The number of fishermen dying at sea in developing countries is reportedly very high - about 10 times higher than that in developed countries.

The factors responsible for the high mortality rate among fishermen are many. These include excessive fishing caused by increasing competition and the steady fall in profitability, recklessness on the part of the fishermen, poor safety systems, fleet limitations, gaps in weather forecast arrangements and inadequate legislation on safety and regulatory measures. The fisheries departments of various governments have been genuinely concerned about the fast depletion of fisheries resources and have initiated long-term measures to conserve them through sustainable use. However, they have done little to ensure the safety and welfare of those who harvest the resources. On the other hand, the safety of seafarers engaged in cargo handling and transport activities connected with merchant shipping have been a matter of overriding concern for marine administrations.

Studies have found that artisanal and small-scale fisheries are particularly problematic for the promotion of responsible fisheries operations and that sea safety systems are the weakest in this sector. Most of the fishing vessels, consisting mainly of small and simple boats, are not properly registered or are not registered at all. According to the estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), of the 36 million people engaged in fishing and fish-farming, about 15 million are employed aboard decked or undecked fishing vessels operating in marine capture fisheries, of whom more than 90 per cent work on vessels less than 24 metres in length.

Such fishing units are mostly non-motorised and poorly equipped in terms of navigation, communication and safety. Their crew are not properly trained in sea safety measures. Moreover, the existing institutional arrangements and legal frameworks with regard to search-and-rescue services provided by the national fisheries and maritime authorities are inadequate or ineffective. Inadequate budgetary allocations and shortage of qualified personnel are among the other problems that the fisheries and marine authorities face.

The FAO and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), along with the ILO, have evolved a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. It encompasses the main elements of the various international conventions and pieces of legislation on fisheries and related environmental issues and contain references to the obligations of states with respect to, among other things, safety at sea, particularly safety standards for fishing vessels; working and living conditions on board fishing vessels; health-related issues; and education and training programmes. However, in the absence of proper regulatory and enforcement mechanisms, the code has not had any significant impact on the sea safety systems of various countries.

A MAJOR effort in the direction of evolving measures to ensure sea safety in the case of artisanal and small-scale fisheries was made when experts of the FAO and representatives from seven of its member-countries discussed the issue at a regional workshop in Chennai recently. The participating nations were Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand, all members of the Bay of Bengal Programme (BOBP), which was instrumental in organising the workshop.

Although the basic problems relating to safety at sea are common to developing countries, there have been variations in local conditions and the complexities involved. The principal objective of the Chennai workshop was to raise the level of awareness among the participating countries about the existence of a significant and growing problem. The workshop also tried to drive home the idea that the problem was not insurmountable, in the sense that at least some countries practised certain safety measures with demonstrable results.

The BOBP's Interim IGO (inter-governmental organisation) Coordi-nator, Dr. Y.S. Yadava, told Frontline that the marine fisheries sector was vital for the economy of countries in the Bay of Bengal region and it supported a large population of fishermen, particularly those of the artisanal and small-scale type. He said that while the scope of "small-scale fisheries" had expanded in the region and now included even distant water fisheries, small vessels had yet to make technological improvements needed for offshore fishing. The required improvements related to sea-worthiness, crew safety and comfort, sail facilities and fuel and water capacities on board, Yadava said.

Yadava said that during a tour of the member-countries in early 2001, he felt the need to convene a regional workshop in order to evolve a common strategy. The frequent loss of lives caused many humanitarian problems for the countries, including in the matters of payment of compensation and provision of alternative livelihoods to the victims' families. These apart, the member-countries faced an additional financial burden when they had to launch search operations for missing fishermen. The countries suggested that a joint strategy be planned and the assistance of the FAO sought for its implementation.

When Yadava mooted a regional workshop, the FAO offered to participate in it actively. FAO-BOBP consultant James Roger Pearson visited the seven member-countries and held preliminary discussions with officials of the governments, rescue agencies and the police, besides representatives of fishermen's associations in each country. His comprehensive tour report was circulated among the member-countries in September. The countries were informed that the report, which gave a detailed account of the problems faced by each country, would be the discussion paper for the workshop. The tour report stressed the urgent need to standardise, with an eye on safety, the construction and design of traditional vessels on which artisanal and small-scale fishermen generally relied. It also suggested that safety issues be integrated into the regulatory framework and that resource management by various countries be harmonised in the common interest of their fishing communities. Each country was asked to send a broadly representative four-member delegation to the workshop. The delegations comprised senior government officials and representatives of fishermen's associations, besides a few experienced fishermen. Altogether, there were 35 delegates from the member-countries. There were experts and resource persons to assist them.

At the workshop, the delegates divided themselves into four groups, discussed the sea safety problems of the member-countries, and came out with "country papers".

Yadava said that the common idea that emerged from the discussions was that more serious efforts should be made by governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and fishermen's associations to ensure the safety of artisanal and small-scale fishermen at sea. They also agreed that some of the sea safety issues were common to the region and hence a regional approach was necessary. They cited the case of fishermen crossing territorial boundaries and ending up in jails in other countries whose laws might not facilitate their early release. A unified approach might help bring about changes in laws to help the affected fishermen, particularly when they had not wantonly crossed boundaries, but had drifted across them owing to factors such as loss of direction, a mechanical failure in the vessel, or faulty weather reports.

ANOTHER area where there was a commonality of views related to the need for a common fisheries policy for the countries in the region, which would help resolve many of the fishermen's problems with regard to sea safety. It was felt that a common fisheries policy was essential, particularly in the context of unhealthy competition among fishermen of different countries that had arisen out of the fast dwindling of coastal resources.

Yadava said that it was not surprising that these countries' had a common approach, because the problems they faced were also the same, barring a few technical variations. After four days of deliberations the workshop adopted "the Chennai Declaration". It spelt out the need for united efforts on the part of the BOBP member-countries to ensure sea safety in the region and to evolve a joint strategy.

Pleased with the "strong endorsement" of the Chennai Declaration by the delegates, Yadava said the task now before the BOBP would be to mobilise donor assistance to implement the declaration. He said he was hopeful of getting the assistance of international funding agencies.