Duncan MacLean’s recent blog mentioned the tension between the volume of regulations and guidance relating to safety within the fishing industry, and the pressing need for crews to read and follow them. As the UK Government’s Maritime Safety Action Plan and strategy for fishing vessel safety continue to bed in, bridging that gap and communicating the regulations in a way that brings about genuine behavioural change, particularly in areas involving seemingly simple safety measures such as use of Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), is a significant challenge facing the sector.

Broadly speaking, it might be said that there are two possible approaches: top-down – involving the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) and other bodies using guidance, enforcement and recommendations to ensure adherence to the rules; or a softer, bottom-up communication coming from within the industry itself. The news that MCA is considering using fixed-wing aircraft fitted with cameras to monitor and compel the use of PFDs could be viewed as top-down change that management has taken a little too literally. But aside from the numerous questions around how fixed-wing aircraft enforcement specifically would work in practice, it remains to be seen if a regime that is largely detached from fishing industry workers will achieve the tangible behavioural changes that are needed on deck.

On the other hand, there is an argument that what is important when trying to change behaviour is to focus on the agency of the individual – the backlash against single-use plastics being a recent example. One option to improve uptake of PFDs may therefore be to draw on one of the biggest resources available, in the form of fishing industry workers themselves, to spread the word drawing on their own experiences of how PFDs can – and do – mean the difference between life and death. Consider this example from recent months:

The Polaris was a fishing vessel that sunk off the Isle of Man in November 2019. The crew were rescued by another fishing vessel, the Lynn Marie, which arrived on the scene 15 minutes after the Polaris skipper and another crew member had gone into the water.

The crews of both vessels were praised for their responses to different aspects of the incident: the skipper of the Lynn Marie for stopping the engine to listen for shouts from the Polaris crew; and the Polaris crew in turn for wearing their lifejackets while working. Comments made by the skipper of the Polaris after the incident carry particular weight for their force and personal nature: he pulls no punches in saying that neither he nor his crew would have “even been afloat” for the Lynn Marie to recover them, had they not been wearing their lifejackets.

But he is also forcefully positive about the crew’s training, and the difference it made when they found themselves in trouble:

“At no time did I feel our lives were in danger due to our training and equipment. We had a policy of wearing lifejackets on the working deck since attending refresher training, where I was shown a film involving fishermen, wearing their normal working clothes, being put through their paces in the RNLI survival centre environmental pool, both with and without lifejackets, in cold water with wave movement whilst attempting to recover themselves. To see fishermen struggling in a controlled environment and only lasting a few minutes, or in some cases a few seconds, without the lifejacket makes you think about your own safety. I can tell you that there is no doubt that the lifejackets saved our lives. I would encourage all fishermen to start wearing their lifejackets while on deck – you just never know when you might need it”

The sentiment behind the regulations is communicated here in human terms with images that will be familiar to crew and vessel owners alike. Harnessing the power of plain-speaking and amplifying the experiences of those working within the industry may be the key to translating regulatory measures into improved practices at sea.