Cape Town Agreement to regulate fishing vessel safety gathers momentum

Few international rules govern vessel safety for the 40 million people who work in the fishing industry – a stark contrast to the stringent vessel safety rules that apply to the global shipping industry’s two million workers.

The results are telling: 24 million fishing industry workers are injured every year, and more than 24,000 fishing industry workers die, compared to roughly 300 merchant seafarer deaths per year, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. And that doesn’t include the deaths left unreported by the many migrant fishermen unable to speak the language of other crewmembers or the skipper.

Recently, however, momentum has picked up to implement regulations that would govern fishing vessel safety. The Cape Town Agreement, drafted in 2012 and developed by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO), would regulate fishing vessel safety, and is about halfway to coming into force.

Twenty-two countries representing a total of 3,600 fishing vessels longer than 24 meters have to ratify the agreement to bring it into force. So far, 10 countries representing just over 1,000 vessels have done so, with three countries ratifying it in the last six months. The agreement will come into force 12 months after the ratification threshold is reached.

“Although it seems that a huge number of fishing vessels is still needed to enable entry into force, the number could be reached relatively easily by some of the countries with big fishing fleets ratifying the agreement,” Sandra Allnutt, the head of maritime technology in IMO’s Maritime Safety Division, told SeafoodSource.

The agreement requires fishing vessels 24 meters or longer to meet certain standards for design, construction and equipment associated with seaworthiness, with provisions for life-saving appliances, communications equipment, and fire protection.

Vessels flying the flag of ratifying countries would be subject to the requirements, as well as any vessels entering the ports of ratifying states. The agreement applies to both international waters and exclusive economic zones, with some exceptions. Operators will have five or 10 years to meet different provisions of the agreement.

Ratification in a country is generally led by transport ministries, then approved by the foreign ministry or legislature, depending on the country. The IMO and Pew Charitable Trusts are consulting countries in the process.

Two other treaties currently govern other aspects of the fishing industry. The Port State Measures Agreement seeks to curb illegal fishing through port inspections. And the International Labor Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention, which entered into force in November 2017, sets minimum requirements for work on board vessels, including hours of rest and minimum age and repatriation. The Cape Town Agreement will address the third aspect – actual vessel safety.

States currently have a patchwork of regulations for registered vessels, but some date back to the 1960s, Allnutt said. Additionally, fishing vessels have been exempted from most of the requirements in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

Previous attempts at safety requirements – the Torremolinos Convention of 1977 and the Torremolinos Protocol of 1993 – contained essentially the same requirements as the Cape Town Agreement, but had higher barriers to ratification, and subsequently failed. The European Union, however, has adopted the provisions for vessels flying EU flags or fishing in EU waters. 

Ment van der Zwan, who is the Europêche’s spokesman on social affairs in fisheries, told SeafoodSource that the agreement should be updated to include the majority of the global fishing fleet’s vessels, which are shorter than 24 meters in length. Resistance, he said, comes from a dated view of the fishing industry.

“The fishing sector, despite its globalization, is still viewed as a national rather than an international affair. So why apply international standards?” van der Zwan said. “I do not share that view because fish ends up on international markets, so there is an international interest in safe fishing vessels.”

Cutting corners on safety is part of a cycle that also includes illegal fishing, according to Courtney Farthing, who is leading Pew Charitable Trusts’ Cape Town Agreement efforts. Illegal fishing damages fish stocks, driving vessel operators to work longer hours and fish harder, sacrificing safety and working conditions in the process. The fish stocks become more exploited, leading to more illegal fishing and poorer safety conditions.

Farthing told SeafoodSource that the cycle undermines legitimate fishing, and that illegal fishing, safety and labor conditions all need to be addressed together.

“We realized it was really a convergence crime. A vessel that was involved in illegal fishing was involved in other crimes,” Farthing said, such as wildlife trafficking and safety violations. “This is the most dangerous profession in the world. Thousands of people die every year … it really is a cycle, and the cycle is bad for everybody.”

Photo courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts


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