Deadly Work: The Dangers Of Fishing And How To Make It Safer



Anna Grybenyuk

Anna Grybenyuk graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in Modern History and Russian in 2016, then again with an MLitt in Museum and Gallery Studies in 2020. Much of her knowledge of fishing and maritime activity comes from working at the Scottish Fisheries Museum, and from living so long by the coast. She currently works in Oxford, managing digital collections for the Pitt Rivers Museum and History of Science Museum. It is far from the sea, but she will take any opportunity to head back to the coast to spot birds and boats alike.

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Tuesday, November 14 2023
Why commercial fishing ranks as one of the most dangerous jobs

Some people see fishing as a relaxing activity, where the biggest danger is wet feet. Scale that up to an industrial level, however, and the story could not be more different. A research report from the FISH Safety Foundation published in November 2022 1 estimated that, on average, 100,000 people per year die while engaged in activity related to commercial fishing 2. This figure is likely to be higher, as the same report acknowledges severe data weaknesses due to differences in reporting practices between countries, and failing to count fatalities while fishing in smaller boats, to name but a few factors. Statistics from the UK show that the non-fatal injury rate per 100,000 people among fishery workers is the highest of any industry. It is clear that, despite improvements in safety over the last century, commercial fishing is amongst the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Why is it so dangerous? A number of factors. At sea, weather is unpredictable at best, but fishermen must brave it to earn a living. Often, especially for fishermen, this means going out even when poor weather, such as storms in north regions and typhoons in the tropics, is forecast. This increases the risk of falling overboard by creating an unstable, slippery surface on the boat. To fall overboard means to risk drowning. Even a fall on deck can be dangerous. Many fishermen work in remote areas which means it is a long way to go for help. In that time, a small injury could easily become much more serious.


Challenges in standardising safety for fishing boats

However, many aspects of fishing’s dangerous nature are not inherent but due to a lack of safety measures. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) does not apply to fishing vessels 3, so there is no single international set of safety regulations for fishing boats. They vary too much in shape, size and configuration for one standard. Only one thing unites them: many are small. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, 90% of all fishing boats are under 24 metres in length4. Smaller boats are more affected by bad weather and rough seas. They have less space to carry equipment, whether for fishing or safety, often causing it to be stored improperly. This creates trip hazards or leaves no space for safety features such as rope covers.

Working conditions aboard these boats can also be punishing. Smaller boats mean smaller crews, with individuals often being overworked. Declines in fish stocks have also forced fishermen to go further in search of their catch, scrambling to beat the competition to the target fishing area. As a result, many work long, gruelling hours, causing fatigue. Exhaustion can be a significant contributor to workplace accidents, and fishing is no exception. Exhausted people make mistakes, and in a dangerous environment such as a fishing boat, these mistakes can be fatal. Aforementioned smaller boats often have fewer sleeping quarters for crew to let them sleep. Adding to this, small crews mean fishermen often work alone. If an exhausted fisherman slips and falls overboard, nobody may notice until too late.

What can be done about all of this?

A start is changing laws around fishing. Both the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) have been trying to push for the ratification of conventions to improve safety and working conditions for fisheries. Only the ILO has had any success, however, with its Work in Fishing Convention coming into force in November 20175. The hope is it will prevent forced labour and other abuses, especially in developing nations though it relies on enforcement.

But such change does not need to be so dramatic as international conventions. Even changes as seemingly innocuous as changing fishing quota distribution to allocate each vessel a quota instead of a single quota for the whole fishery can help. It means fishermen do not have to hurry, and thus can take their time, or not go out due to poor weather, fearing their more risk-taking competition will fill the quota before them 6. This can help prevent weather-related accidents. However, this needs to be implemented carefully, as some boat owners can compromise vessel safety further in order to get more favourable quotas, rendering the point moot.

Another thing to do is provide safety equipment. This is often difficult, as the meagre profits from fishing leave little money for skippers to invest in improving safety. Governments or other organisations have to step in to provide grants for such things. For example, The EU paid for half of the upgrading of safety equipment costing 70,000 euros to a skipper in 20217. In another case, a scheme in the UK was devised to subsidise distributing new, lighter life jackets or “personal floatation devices” by the non-profits Seafish, Fisherman’s Mission, and the National Federation of Fisherman’s organisations 8. Help is available, but it is only as good as the funding available. This is doubly challenging in developing countries, as there is rarely enough help or money for such initiatives, hence why fatalities there tend to be higher.

Yet another way to help is providing training. There is no point in safety equipment if nobody knows how to use it. Training can prevent panic in an emergency situation, allowing people to take appropriate action. They can find out what to do in case of falling overboard, how to properly use equipment such as flares and flotation devices, and how to apply first aid to injured colleagues if proper care is inaccessible at sea. The US Coast Guard considers training so important it has invested 6 million dollars for extramural grants to fund training and safety research 9. This demonstrates how vital it is to train and empower fishermen to take their own safety in their hands. Legislation and equipment is only as good as the knowledge of the people doing the work.

These are simply some suggestions. We should give the remarkable people who risk their lives doing this job the best chance of making it back to their loved ones and communities unharmed. To this end, Lloyd’s Register Foundation have teamed up with Seafarer’s Charity and the Fishing Industry Safety and Health (FISH) Platform to create a new fund to improve fishing safety, with focus on the global South, where the challenges are the most difficult. You can read more about it here, and help support their vision of making fishing an industry with well-managed risk which people are proud to belong to.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Lloyd’s Register Group or Lloyd’s Register Foundation.


Health and Safety Executive of the United Kingdom,

International Maritime Organisation,

International Labour Organisation,

Life Jackets: A review, , Marine Accident Investigation Board, November 2016

“NIOSH & U.S. Coast Guard Announce 2023 Funding for Commercial Fishing Safety Research & Training.” National Fisherman, 16 Nov. 2022,

“More than 100,000 Fishing-Related Deaths Occur Each Year, Study Finds.” The Pew Charitable Trusts, 14 December 2022,

Antunes, Jose. “Commercial Fishing Is Getting Safer: Is It a Career for You?” National Fisherman, 2 February 2023,

Baker, Joe. “Fishing’s Dark Side: The Need to Improve Conditions for Workers.” Ship Technology, 6 February 2018,

Lociter, Denis. “The European Fishermen in Need of a Safety Net.” Euronews, 20 July 2021, <>

Pfeiffer, Lisa, and Trevor Gratz. “The Effect of Rights-Based Fisheries Management on Risk Taking and Fishing Safety.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 113, no. 10, 2016, pp. 2615–20

Ruehr, Sophie. “Fishing Is Still the Most Dangerous Job.” The Provincetown Independent, 13 November 2019,

Willis, S. & Holliday, E., Triggering Death: Quantifying the True Human Cost of Global Fishing FISH Safety Foundation, 1st November 2022

See also/further reading:

Stories by Anna Grybenyuk

Stories by Rose George

Lloyd's Register Foundation News Articles: Inside the world’s most dangerous industry

Lloyd's Register Foundation News Articles: Protecting fishermen in Bangladesh

Lloyd's Register Foundation News Articles: Occupational safety and health in the aquaculture industry

Lloyd's Register Foundation Impact Stories: Saving lives of the world’s poorest fishermen

Footnote hovee text


  • 1
  • 2

    Willis, S. & Holliday, E., Triggering Death: Quantifying the True Human Cost of Global Fishing [online] FISH Safety Foundation, 1st November 2022, p.7 

  • 3

     “Fishing Vessel Safety.” International Maritime Organization, <> Accessed 22 July 2023.

  • 4

     “Fishing among the Most Dangerous of All Professions, Says ILO.” International Labour Organisation, 13 Dec. 1999, <—en/index.html> Accessed 22 July 2023.

  • 5

     Baker, Joe. “Fishing’s Dark Side: The Need to Improve Conditions for Workers.” Ship Technology, 6 Feb. 2018, <> 

  • 6

     Pfeiffer, Lisa, and Trevor Gratz. “The Effect of Rights-Based Fisheries Management on Risk Taking and Fishing Safety.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 113, no. 10, 2016, pp. 2615–20. 

  • 7

     Lociter, Denis. “The European Fishermen in Need of a Safety Net.” Euronews, 20 July 2021, <> 

  • 8

     Life Jackets: A review, [online]Marine Accident Investigation Board, November 2016, p14. 

  • 9

     “NIOSH & U.S. Coast Guard Announce 2023 Funding for Commercial Fishing Safety Research & Training.” National Fisherman, 16 Nov. 2022, <> 

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