Study Indicates Commerical Fishing as Much as 4 Times More Dangerous than Believed

20 Nov, 2023 Chriss Swaney


Sarasota, FL ( -- Commercial fishing has long been known as one of the world’s most dangerous professions, but a new study by the FISH Foundation and commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts, suggests that the problem far exceeds previous estimates.   

According to the research, more than 100,000 fishing-related deaths occur every year, which is three to four times previous estimates.  The Pew-backed study found that serious injuries and abuses, including child labor and decompression sickness – for example, from workers being forced to make repeated deep dives to harvest lobster.  

 “The original research focused on understanding how many people die, and less on keeping track of how they died,’’ said Sam Willis of the FISH Safety Foundation. Given the lack of information worldwide, it is currently very difficult to report what the most common injuries and deaths are,’’ said Willis.   

Further, while fishing can be inherently risky, the study draws attention to the harsh reality that many of these deaths were, and are, avoidable. Incredibly, few were even officially recorded. Insufficient and unenforced safety regulations are a key challenge.  

“In many cases, there’s a lot that can be done to tighten safety measures, and capacity development is certainly needed.  For example, you can punish people for not wearing life vests, but they should be educated to know they need them, and be able to afford them. The same goes for vessel upkeep,’’ said Katherine Hanly, manager of International Fisheries for the Pew Charitable Trust.  

 Hanly also points out that international fishery law should be strengthened to hopefully encourage countries to do better. “Several international treaties such as the Cape town Agreement and  Port State Measures Agreement should be ratified and enforced and nations should establish regional alliances that can better enforce and control their waters,’’ said Willis.  

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 3 billion people rely on fish and other marine species as a significant source of protein, and experts expect that number to increase. As the demand for seafood increases worldwide, commercial fishing could grow even more dangerous.  

The Pew study also found that there are indirect triggers that complicate the dangers of commercial fishing including climate change intensifying storms, war and conflict making conditions more dangerous for fishing, poverty which makes for desperate risk taking and overfishing, meaning fishing boats have to go further to find fish and are competing with one another to a greater degree. The study also found that poor fisheries oversight and management is a major contributor to deaths.  A decline in fish due to poor management or climate change can prompt formerly independent fisheries to work on illegal boats where the operators – in some cases, engage in dangerous behavior, such as fishing without safety equipment  or working many hours without sleep. 

Still, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In Alaska,  home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon commercial fishery in Bristol Bay, there were no fishery fatalities in 2022, according to a U.S. Coast Guard report.  

“Our fishermen are using more safety equipment as a younger generation of fishing crews see the value in overall safety for crews and boats,’’ said Chris Woodley, who spent 24 years in the Coast Guard monitoring commercial fisheries and boats in Alaska.  

Woodley also said that demand is increasing for documentation of socially responsible practices on commercial vessels in response to efforts to curb the use of slave, forced or child labor.  “Buyers and the public are now asking U.S. seafood companies for credible and transparent documentation that the seafood purchased was not produced by using illegal forms of labor,’’ said Woodley.  

Because fisheries in Alaska operate under a suite of federal and state laws and transparency, they are becoming a world leader in environmental sustainability, according to Woodley.  

In 2022, global fish production came to an estimated 92 million metric tons and is expected to double in the next five years.  


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    About The Author

    • Chriss Swaney

      Chriss Swaney is a freelance reporter who has written for Antique Trader Magazine, Reuters, The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, the Burlington Free Press, UPI, The Tribune-Review and the Daily Record.

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