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The Cape Town Agreement on Fishing Vessel Safety should be ratified


The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has adopted as its theme for the 2014 Maritime Day: “IMO conventions: effective implementation”. One of the measures of particular importance to the fishing industry is the Cape Town Agreement on fishing vessel Safety.

Fishing Industry’s Poor Record

Fishing vessels continue to have one of the worst safety records (PDF) of any industry, yet have largely remained outside of the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) – that body of international safety measures mandated by the IMO for cargo shipping, and which have been responsible for significant improvements in cargo ship safety and the reduction in casualties and loss of life. The fishing industry not only has a poor record of accidents and loss of life, but also loss of fishing gear which causes long term environmental damage.

A sunken fishing vesselCapsized fishing vessel © SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture

Many arguments have been put forward for treating fishing vessels differently, such as regional differences in vessel design and practice, and cultural aspects of fishing. But the absence of global and binding regulations generally in the fishing sector is also a cause of the sector’s poor performance and reputation, not just in safety but also in IUU fishing, crew conditions and illegal activities. It is in these areas that the UN Agencies have adopted new global legislative measures for fishing vessels that await ratification by their member governments before they can enter into force. I referred to these in a previous blog. Only one Measure has so far entered into force – the IMO International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Fishing Vessel Personnel (STCW-F).

Cape Town Agreement

The Cape Town Agreement is a basic set of safety measures for larger high seas fishing vessels that mirror SOLAS, covering:

  • Stability
  • Construction
  • Watertight integrity and equipment, machinery and electrical installations
  • Fire protection and fire-fighting
  • Protection of the crew
  • Lifesaving appliances;
  • Emergency procedures, musters and drills
  • Ship-borne communications and navigational equipment.

The Agreement has had a long and tortuous history extending over 35 years. The original Torremolinos International Convention for the Safety of Fishing Vessels – 1977 was made more acceptable to many governments by a 1993 Protocol which raised the lower vessel length limit from 24m to 45m in many chapters, leaving it up to a regional decision for an application to vessels of 24 metres in length and over. This never entered into force. Three regional IMO seminars followed and a binding text was finally adopted at the IMO Cape Town Conference in October 2012.

The Cape Town Agreement has significantly eased the entry into force threshold of the 1993 Torremolinos Protocol, in terms of the number of member states that now have to ratify (22) and the aggregate number of their vessels authorised to operate on the high seas (3,600). It has also introduced more exemptions and flexibility into the time frame for implementation, to facilitate wider acceptance amongst states – China and Japan in particular.

Entry into force is important as it would help raise safety standards around the world and also help stop safety being exploited as a source of competitive advantage. Entry into force means that the new standards will apply not just to the registered fleets of states that have ratified, but also to vessels operating in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), or visiting the ports, of these states – under the principle of “no unfair treatment”. Once in force, it will also form a basic piece of legislation that can be improved and extended to incorporate the scope of other SOLAS measures, such as Safety Management (incorporating fishing operations), port state control, global monitoring and flag state audits.

Two states (Iceland and Norway) have ratified the Agreement under a simplified procedure for states that had previously ratified the Torremolinos Protocol. South Africa has signed the Agreement subject to future ratification. It is regrettable  that a further 14 states that had ratified Torremolinos did not use the simplified procedure to ratify the Cape Town Agreement while this was available for 12 months up to 10 February 2014. It is possible that the tighter survey and inspection regime introduced into the Agreement may be the reason for the delay by these states, as this would require amendment to their domestic legislation.

The EU Commission and Parliament has recognised the importance of the Cape Town Agreement entering into force, and has urged its Member states to ratify it within two years. This would make a significant contribution to achieving the entry into force thresholds. However, if the UK’s position is typical this cannot be taken for granted. The UK has argued that the Cape Town Agreement would not change the high regional standards already mandated within the EU, which are broadly based on the Torremolinos Protocol.  Ratification would serve the purpose of helping to trigger the Agreement’s entry into force thresholds, but only if there is already a broad base of support internationally.

Better news that Japan may have started its internal procedures to enable it to ratify the Agreement.

The ship the Viarsa 1 on rough seasViarsa 1 on rough seas ©AFMA

We need to press states to ratify

There is a need to pressure states for greater urgency in ratifying the Cape Town Agreement, including the EU and those states that have already ratified the Torremolinos Protocol. The IMO 2014 Maritime Day in September is an opportunity to do this. After all the work that has gone into agreeing internationally acceptable standards, entry into force of this mandatory measure would send an important message to the industry that this is the starting point for raising safety levels globally.

There is a need to find new pressure points on Member States, such as the consumers of fish products being made aware, through seafood traceability schemes, of the safety regimes of flag administrations that vessels are operating under to deliver products to supermarket shelves.

Safety of vessels smaller than those covered by the Cape Town Agreement is just as important. Here the UN Agencies have published guidelines that should be acted on by flag states and fisheries authorities.

Trevor Downing is the director of TJD Maritime Consultants and a consultant to WWF. If you have an opinion about Trevor’s blog, please leave a comment.

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