Wednesday, 29 January 2020

UK fishing industry - a maritime operator's perspective.

Until recently Peter Aylott was running the UK's largest trawler fleet based in Newlyn, Cornwall. He has since moved on but felt compelled to write about  his hopes for the future of the industry to which he became closely attached:

"After the oil downturn in 2016/2017 I was recruited to run an historic fishing company in Cornwall. I was uncertain of what I would find operationally as the business had been ailing for some time and the fleet was old. Poor vessel serviceability squeezed the cashflow and a decision was made to sell a majority equity share of the business to the largest Cornish fish wholesaler. As I leave the sector, I thought it would be useful to highlight 5 observations from my experience of operating the largest beam trawler fleet in the United Kingdom."

1. Crew sustainability.

2. Employment of fishermen.

3. ILO 188 (Working in fishing convention) implementation.

4. Safety management.

5. The fishing vessel operating safety envelope.

There are many more including a review of vessel regulatory demarcations of 24m and 30m registered lengths and the need for immersion suits that can be worn whilst working on deck on a day to day basis in cold weather.

The main observation is that crew sustainability in a remote fishing community is, I believe, the biggest challenge to the industry. This is not unique to fishing, but given the relatively small and diminishing fleet size which will grow less and less skippers, I think this issue will come to pass faster than other marine industries.

I take a view that employment arrangements need to come into the 21st century – a view I suspect not shared by all fishermen. Any comment on the fishing industry does need to focus on safety. The industry has a poor record here and whilst I believe ILO 188 has been a positive experience, there is a great deal of work to do now to ensure that the new standards do deliver the desired outcome. I remain and will always be in awe of the seamanship skills and resilience of fishermen – they are unique in our maritime industry and deserve even more assistance with training and welfare. A great deal of excellent support does exist through charities, the UK Government and the industry itself, especially in physical health and well-being. Going forward I hope that resources can be made available to really improve safety training and mental health.

1. Crew sustainability.

In a very similar vein to the offshore industry the average age of fishermen is increasing. This experience level is a positive message, but the number of new entrants to the industry and their development is falling behind the fleet requirement. Entry to the industry is a relatively low barrier with financial support for training, but conversion to skipper level qualifications remains the biggest hurdle. Standards have risen and candidates are struggling to pass examinations. Whilst sometimes this is symptomatic of a shortfall in preparation, I believe the gap between what is required of a skipper at sea today and what they have to know to pass the examination is becoming larger. Many might argue that this is progress, but whereas I am unaware of offshore support vessels not sailing due to shortage of crew, this factor has prevented fishing vessels from sailing. Whilst operational efficiency and vessel development naturally lead to a lower manning requirement, this factor will lag behind the current and future shortage of qualified and experienced crew.

2. Employment of fishermen.

From my time in the RN in the Fishing Protection Squadron I was aware of the self-employed share fisherman status. An historic arrangement recognised by HMRC that links the traditional hunter-gatherer mentality to compensation. Whilst it suits the current fishermen and their distrust of paying tax, MAIB are, in my opinion, right to raise their concern about the balance of risk and reward. I would prefer to see a bonus-based employment scheme adopted by other fishing fleets, which rewards the skill required and the bounty of a significant catch, but provides more steady income when the weather is poor or a vessel is out of operation. It would help in improving mental health and would also enable fishermen to access employment benefits such as mortgages, health provision and life insurance more readily.

3. ILO 188.

ILO 188 has now been implemented in the UK and it is a step in the right direction for providing more consistent working conditions for fishermen at sea. Having been through the implementation of MLC 2006 in the marine offshore industry in 2012, I was very familiar with the issues, concepts and MCA strategy. Like most international conventions, one size does not fit all comfortably, and there are a number of areas that will need to be adapted going forward. My experience of this process has been positive with the fleet organisation and safety management in a better place now and there was strong support from the MCA throughout.

4. Safety.

Whereas most shipping companies complying with MLC 2006 found that it enshrined what they were already dong, there is no question that ILO 188 Safety Management System (SMS) has been a new concept for most fishing fleets. It is going to take time for the practical output of safety to improve without investment in training and I think this is an area that the sector could learn a great deal from the deep-water shipping fleet. Here the introduction of the International Ship Management (ISM) code took some time to generate traction, but the advent of training at all levels has generated a doctrine that is followed and practiced by all.

5. Fishermen seamanship skills.

Much is made of fishermen’s natural can-do attitude and there is a view that their priority for safety is inconsistent, but I remain in awe of their day to day seamanship skills and resilience. Operating 30 metre beam trawlers in the South West approaches in poor weather requires extensive skills and sound judgement based on a rare depth of experience. My view is that they encounter seamanship challenges far more routinely than their other maritime operators and whilst they do make mistakes, their activities naturally lean far more towards the edge of the safety envelope. I always asked myself if that envelope was too large, but the reality is that regulations are usually set after accidents occur and not by experts before – human nature perhaps and economics. In the 21st century we need to bring that envelope in to provide a margin of operational safety that significantly reduces the accident level. This will only come with training."