The International Union of Maritime Insurers 2018 Conference, which was recently held in Cape Town, provided a platform for discussing the issues and challenges currently facing the international marine insurance market.

Fishing remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. According to International Labour Organisation statistics, at least 24,000 people die and 24 million are injured each year on commercial fishing vessels. By comparison, an average of 292 merchant seafarers are reported dead or missing each year.

The sheer scale of this problem is put into focus by the fact that there are an estimated 4.6 million fishing vessels in the world, the vast majority of which are small vessels measuring less than 24m.

The main challenges which contribute to this issue can be summarised as follows.

Poor regulation and enforcement

Most legislation concerns only certain fishing vessels (eg, those which measure more than 10m or 7m and/or are motorised), while small-scale fishing vessels are not regulated and controlled at all. The enforcement of regulations is, in most cases, weak – even vessels that are regulated do not comply with regulations. Further, a lack of oversight throughout the commercial fishing industry means that vessels can operate with few or no safety measures in place.

Vulnerability of fishers

Fishers often work extremely long hours in hazardous conditions. They regularly operate dangerous equipment and medical care is often inaccessible. Further, migrant fishers make up a high proportion of workers on the high seas, often labouring in isolation and being unable to speak the language of other crew members or the skipper. Further, the transfer at sea principle enables crews to be moved without entering port. Some crew can even stay at sea for years at a time.

Lack of data

A lack of data makes it difficult to compile accurate statistics and it is not yet standard practice to collect marine accident data. Many governments do not prioritise safety at sea because the magnitude of the problem is unknown. In cases where data collection systems do exist, only accidents that involve search and rescue operations are registered. Accidents with small-scale vessels are seldom recorded and it is therefore impossible to gain a global perspective.

Boat building and design

Few countries have adopted regulations and most that exist are inadequate. In general, inspections during the construction of fishing vessels, or the approval of drawing plans, tend not to be properly enforced. Modifications to designs developed during the 1980s and 1990s have resulted in these modified fishing vessels now experiencing stability and structural issues.

Efforts to adopt an international treaty

The breakthrough of an acceptable international regime came in 2012 when the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) adopted the Cape Town Agreement to effect the provisions of earlier treaties. In order to improve control of fishing vessel safety by flag, port and coastal states, the agreement is also expected to contribute to the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The treaty will enter into force 12 months after at least 22 countries – which have approximately 3,600 fishing vessels measuring 24m or more and operating on the high seas – have expressed their consent to be bound by it.

As of September 2018, 10 countries have ratified the Cape Town Agreement. Between them, they have a total of 1,020 fishing vessels which measure 24m or more and operate on the high seas.

In essence, the agreement aims to combine the standardised mandatory international requirements for:

  • stability and associated seaworthiness;
  • machinery and electrical installations;
  • life-saving appliances;
  • communications equipment;
  • fire protection; and
  • fishing vessel construction.

The IMO has also observed increasing commitment from a number of member states and, in general, there are positive moves underway to promote the Cape Town Agreement.

Safer vessels make for fewer incidents and, therefore, fewer claims under marine policies. It stands to reason that the insurance market, among many others, has a role to play in pushing for the adoption of the Cape Town Agreement through various means. Ultimately, with enough political will and organisational push, the agreement could be adopted quicker and help to improve the lives of many.

For further information on this topic please contact Jeremy Prain at Bowmans by telephone (+27 21 480 7800) or email ( The Bowmans website can be accessed at

This article was first published by the International Law Office, a premium online legal update service for major companies and law firms worldwide. Register for a free subscription.