Fishers are more likely to lose their lives at work than those in other occupations, including dangerous jobs such as mining and construction. Information from fisheries’ administrations and fishers’ organizations indicates that fatality rates are on the rise.
In the UK, where safety rules are very tight, fatal accidents among fishers were 115 times greater than for the overall workforce in the period 1996-2005. While death rates in other sectors fell in the UK during the period, this was not the case in fishing. In the United States in 2000, the rate of fatalities at work among fishers was 25-30 times the national average.
In many parts of the world, especially in developing countries, reliable and comprehensive statistics on accidents at sea are lacking. As a result, analysts and researchers often have to rely on anecdotal evidence.
An often-quoted global figure for fatalities at sea among fishers is 24,000 each year. Because this is based on extrapolations from patchy data, the actual number could be higher.
Weather conditions – from winter storms in the Northern Hemisphere to tropical hurricanes in the Atlantic, cyclones in the Indian Ocean and typhoons in the western Pacific – take ships and lives in all parts of the industry.
In addition to the danger posed by bad weather, working on both small and large vessels involves machinery, nets or lines and live fish catches. Fishers can get caught in the warps or moving machinery or slip on deck. Such risks are even greater in stormy weather, when vessels pitch or roll and when waters coming over the side can wash people overboard.
Accidents also happen when fishing gear is snagged by obstructions on the seabed, such as exposed rocks and shipwrecks. If nets catch on these, warps on the deck can break, becoming lethal to fishers. In worst cases, vessels have been pulled down due to obstructions, which in at least one case was a moving submarine. 4 The risk is severe enough for government agencies in Britain and France to develop charting systems that record obstructions.
The state and design of vessels plays a key role in safety and the ability to withstand poor weather conditions. Old or inadequately maintained vessels, cramped workspaces and dangerous machinery are particularly hazardous. In developing countries, especially tropical regions, small fishing boats are often old in design and technology. Unlike in the developed world, most small- scale fishing boats do not have decks and 40 percent are not motorized. Such boats are particularly vulnerable to rough seas, putting fishers at greater risk.
Statistics on cause of death are more readily available for commercial and distance fishing than for small-scale fishers.These show that by far the most common cause of death is drowning, and this is how deaths are recorded if bodies are not found. Accidents involving operation of fishing gear are the main source of danger, and likely account for half of fatalities. Fishing is more dangerous than other jobs not only due to the hazards of boats, gear and weather, but also because fishers at sea are remote from medical care.
A different set of risks
On the large vessels that fish for days in distant waters, fishers face dangers in addition to the weather, gear and the state of the vessel. In this part of the industry, vessels are company-owned and fishers are employees, many of them migrant workers from developing countries.This part of the industry is based in a small group of countries in North America, Europe and East Asia, most prominently the United States, France, Spain, China,Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
Distance fishing is on an industrial scale, with the focus on catching as much fish as possible during the period at sea.There is pressure to keep down costs to maximize profits.With spending on vessels, technology and fixed capital on the rise, cost cutting focuses on wages and labour-related costs.
Methods of lowering labour costs have included reducing the number of crew, imposing long hours, stocking minimal supplies of food and drink and using trafficked untrained young men and boys who are among the poorest people in developing countries. This creates a different set of risks for fishers, including accidents due to fatigue or language difficulties and working conditions that threaten their health, and in worst cases are physically abusive.
Declining fish stocks have contributed to making work more difficult on distance fishing because it takes more and more effort, and longer hours, to catch the same quantity of fish.
The life and work of a fisher on such distant-water vessels is graphically illustrated by an interview with a Philippine fisher who suffered from the cold in spite of being in tropical waters:
“We are 24 hours a day, without respite and most of the time we are soaked to the teeth. In a typical day, once it gets dark, we start moving, looking for a rich fishing ground. The search could last for hours and we don’t stop until we find one. When the haul is good, there is no rest until the catch dissipates. Once we are done, the difficult task of folding the net, arranging it carefully, untying knots, takes place. It takes time and we are exposed to the elements. We are usually wet and shivering. The cold gets to the bone. It’s unbearable.”
A Ukrainian working on a Russian crabbing boat in the Arctic described shocking conditions:
“We slept only two hours a day and all the time we were working. Sometimes people got really hurt when they were standing next to the crab traps. Sailors were standing and literally almost sleeping. The traps were falling and sometimes people lost their hands and legs. Nobody cared about this there.”
It is this part of the industry that is the main employer of migrant workers, and both statistics and empirical evidence show that migrant fishers are at higher risk of violence, injuries and deaths. For example, 75 per cent of deaths on UK fishing vessels in 2008 were migrant fishers from either Eastern Europe or the Philippines. The Filipino death rate of 350 per 100,000 was more than three times the UK death rate of 102 per 100,000.
Long-term health damage
Fishers work long hours, often with minimal sleep and irregular eating patterns.They are exposed to extreme weather conditions and engage in physically testing work.
The resulting fatigue increases the likelihood of errors that lead to accidents.This pattern of work also brings high levels of physical and mental stress, which has been linked to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses as well as alcohol-related problems.There are also skin problems and muscular-skeletal disorders.
Sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, are also widespread among fishers in some regions, notably South-East Asia and Papua New Guinea.
The life of fishers – with long periods away from loved ones spent doing arduous work – causes loneliness and can lead to mental health problems. Depression, addictive behaviour and even suicide are real risks.