October 16th marked the beginning of a five-day International Maritime Organization (IMO) seminar attended by representatives from southern and east African countries that came together in Cape Town, South Africa to discuss the Cape Town Agreement of 2012 relating to the safety of fishing vessels and the benefits that this Agreement may offer to the region.

The Agreement seeks to address safety at sea for fishing vessels that often fall between the gaps of international law. The Agreement contains a survey regime which has been harmonised with that of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and provides for the exercising of port State control by applying safety standards to foreign vessels (including those flagged by non-Parties). Conference Resolution 3, adopted at the same time as the Agreement, urges States to provide technical assistance to those States which are having difficulty meeting the requirements of the Agreement and requests the IMO to intensify its efforts to provide assistance on the implementation of the Agreement.

The seminar was composed of technical and operational presentations, working group discussions and a field trip to the nearby Port of Cape Town. The participating countries also presented on their current fisheries situations, outlining their fleets, ministries involved and their status regarding ratification and implementation of the Agreement.

South Africa, having ratified the Agreement, shared their lessons learned, offering to provide copies of their legislation as an example for those wishing to incorporate the provisions of the Agreement into their national legislation.

Per Erik Bergh of Stop Illegal Fishing presented on the work of the FISH-i Africa Task Force, illustrating how the Agreement entering into force could help countries in the region to combat illegal fishing, reduce modern slavery onboard fishing vessels and improve the overall level of safety within the fisheries industry. He noted that, “If a vessel is fishing illegally, it is likely to be committing other violations, including those relating to safety.” This must be considered when risk is assessed.

In the same vein, Ari Gudmundsson[1] of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) stated that, “The Cape Town Agreement will not only improve safety at sea in the fishing sector but will also be a useful tool in fighting illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, together with the FAO Port State Measures Agreement.”

Representing the IMO at the seminar, Sandra Allnutt[2] noted, “Despite the improvement in technology, the loss of life in the fisheries sector is unacceptably high. In this context, IMO places great emphasis on the safety of fishers and fishing vessels. Therefore, it is extremely important that the Cape Town Agreement enter into force as early as possible. It is necessary that 22 States, with aggregate 3 600 fishing vessels of 24 meters in length and over operating on the high seas, ratify the Agreement for its entry into force. Presently, the Agreement has seven Contracting Parties, representing 884 fishing vessels.”

Per Erik Bergh emphasised the benefits of the Agreement:  “The Cape Town agreement is vital to give fishers the protection that seamen on merchant ships have. There are approximately 1.4 million merchant seamen who enjoy the protection given by enforceable international instruments. 24 million fishers, of whom 24 000 die each year, currently have little protection under international agreements.”

States stand to benefit from the Agreement in a variety of ways, regardless of their fleet or lack thereof. Port States would be able to exercise greater control over fishing vessels that wish to use their ports. Additionally, port States with the requisite facilities stand to gain economically as vessels will require certain services to meet increased safety standards – distant water fishing fleets are unlikely to return home for these improvements to take place.

Coastal States also stand to benefit by reducing the likelihood of environmental damage in their waters caused by unsafe fishing vessels. Furthermore, search and rescue missions would be less frequent due to safer fishing vessels.

Overall the Agreement will safeguard blue growth in a sustainable and safe manner, while unsafe and high-risk fishing fleet will undermine the principles and development of a healthy blue economy.

[1] Head of the Fishing Operations and Technology Branch of the FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division.

[2] Head of Marine Technology and GBS of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Division.