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66. Fishing

Chapter Editors: Hulda Ólafsdóttir and Vilhjálmur Rafnsson

Table of Contents

Tables and Figures

General Profile
Ragnar Arnason

     Case Study: Indigenous Divers
     David Gold

Major Sectors and Processes
Hjálmar R. Bárdarson

Psychosocial Characteristics of the Workforce at Sea
Eva Munk-Madsen

     Case Study: Fishing Women

Psychosocial Characteristics of the Workforce in On-Shore Fish Processing
Marit Husmo

Social Effects of One-Industry Fishery Villages
Barbara Neis

Health Problems and Disease Patterns
Vilhjálmur Rafnsson

Musculoskeletal Disorders Among Fishermen and Workers in the Fish Processing Industry
Hulda Ólafsdóttir

Commercial Fisheries: Environmental and Public Health Issues
Bruce McKay and Kieran Mulvaney


Click a link below to view table in article context.

1. Mortality figures on fatal injuries among fishermen
2. The most important jobs or places related to risk of injuries


Point to a thumbnail to see figure caption, click to see figure in article context.


Thursday, 27 October 2011 20:59

Case Study: Fishing Women

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The Entangling Net: Alaska’s Commercial Fishing Women Tell Their Lives, by Leslie Leyland Fields (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), is the story, based on the author’s own experience and interviews, of some of the women who worked as commercial fishers in the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska surrounding Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Islands. The following excerpts capture some of the flavour of these women’s experience, why they chose this line of work and what it entailed.

Theresa Peterson

The last black cod season started May 15. It was two gals and two guys. The skipper wanted a crew that could bait gear fast; that was what he was looking for. ... To start out, all we were trying to do is turn hooks. Its a numbers game. Ideally you run 18,000-20,000 hooks a day. And so we’d have four people baiting at all times and one person hauling gear. The people baiting would rotate coiling the gear. We went back to the traditional way of fishing. Most Kodiak boats will let the gear fall into a tub, kind of on its own, then you bring that tub back and bait it. On the old halibut schooners they hand coil everything so they’re able to offspin every hook. They try to make a really nice coil so when you take it back you can bait it twice as fast. The first couple of days we looked at the time it was taking to bait the messy skates (the long lines on which the hooks are attached). I refuse to bait another skate like that, so then we all started hand coiling our own. When you do that you’re able to move from your baiting station. We really worked long hours, often twenty-four hours, then we go into the next day and work through that night until about 2:00 A.M. and the next day another twenty hours. Then we’d lie  down for about three hours. Then we’d get back up and go another twenty-four hours and a couple of hours down. The first week we averaged ten hours of sleep all together—we figured it out. So we joked, twenty-four on, one off.

I had never fished that hard before. When it opened, we fished Saturday, all through Saturday, all through Sunday and half of Monday. So well over fifty-six hours with no sleep, working as hard, as fast as high paced as you can push yourself. Then we laid down for like three hours. You get up. You are so stiff! Then we brought in a trip, just over 40,000 pounds in four days, so we virtually had been up those entire four days. That was a good load. It was really motivational. I make a thousand dollars a day. ... It’s the shorter seasons, the shorter longline seasons, are what are driving the boats back to these schedules. ... with a three-week season, you’re almost forced to unless you can rotate a person down (let them sleep) (pp. 31-33).

Leslie Smith

But the reason I feel lucky is because we were out there, a woman running a boat with an all-women crew, and we were doing it. And we were doing it as well as anybody else in the fleet, so I never felt intimidated in thinking, “Oh, a woman can’t do this, can’t figure it out, or is not capable of it” because the first job I ever had was with women and we did fine. So I had that confidence factor from the beginning of my deckhand career... (p. 35).

When you’re on a boat, you don’t have a life, you don’t have any physical space, you don’t have any time to yourself. It’s all the boat, the fishing, for four months straight...(p. 36).

I have a little bit of protection on some of the winds but pretty much I’ll get all of it. ... There’s also a lot of tide here. You dump these anchors off; you’ve got fifteen or twenty anchors, some of them three hundred pounders, to try to hold one net in place. And every time you go out there the net’s twisted in some different shape and you have to drag these anchors around. And the weather is not very nice most of the time. You’re always fighting the wind. It’s a challenge, a physical challenge instead of a mental challenge... (p. 37).

Beating the docks (going from boat to boat seeking a job) was the worst thing. After I did it for a while I realized that probably there’s only 15 percent of the boats that you even have a possibility of being hired on because the rest of them will not hire women. Mostly because their wives won’t let them or there’s another woman on the boat already or they are just flat out sexist—they don’t want women. But between those three factors, the number of boats you could get hired on was so slim that it was discouraging. But you had to find out which boats those were. That means walking the docks...(p. 81).

Martha Sutro

I was thinking about the question you asked earlier. Why women are increasingly drawn to this. I don’t know. You wonder if there are increasing numbers of women coal mining or trucking. I don’t know if it has something to do with Alaska and the whole lure of being able to partake of something that formerly was withheld from you, or maybe its a breed of women who have been raised or somehow have been grown up to understand that certain barriers that supposedly were there are not legitimate. Even withstanding all the dangers, it’s an important experience and it’s very viable, very—I hate to use the word “fulfilling,” but it is very fulfilling. I loved, I loved getting a string of pots over perfectly and not having to ask anyone to help me with one of the doors once and getting all the massive wads of bait that you sort of swoop under the pot in the middle. ...There are elements to it you can’t find in any other type of experience. It’s almost like farming. It’s so elemental. It calls on such an elemental process. Since biblical times we’ve been talking about these kind of people. There’s this ethos surrounding it that’s very ancient. And to be able to go to that and draw on it. It gets into this whole mystical realm (p.44).

Lisa Jakubowski

It’s very lonely being the only woman on a boat. I make a point of never getting involved with guys on a romantic level or anything. Friends. I’m always open to friends, but you always have to be careful that they don’t think it’s more. See, there are so many different levels of guys. I don’t want to be friends with the drunkards and cocaine addicts. But definitely the more respectable people I became friends with. And I have maintained male friendships and female friendships. There’s a lot of loneliness though. I found out that laugh therapy helps. I go out on the back deck and just laugh to myself and feel better (p. 61).

Leslie Leyland Fields

Each (woman) asked only for equal treatment and equal opportunity. This doesn’t come automatically in a job where you need the strength to land a swinging 130-pound crab pot, the endurance to withstand thirty-six straight hours of work without sleep, the moxie to run a 150-horsepowered seine skiff at full speed near reefs, and special hands-on skills like diesel engine repair and maintenance, net mending, operating hydraulics. These are the powers that win the day and the fish; these are the powers fishing women must prove to disbelieving men. And not least of all, there is active resistance from an unexpected quarter—other women, the wives of men who fish (p. 53).

This is part of what I know of being a skipper. ... You alone hold the lives of two, three or four people in your hands. Your boat payments and insurance costs run you in the tens of thousands every year—you must catch fish. You manage a potentially volatile mix of personalities and work habits. You must have extensive knowledge of navigation, weather patterns, fishing regulations; you must be able to operate and repair to some degree the array of high-tech electronics that are the brains of the boat. ... The list goes on.

Why does anyone willingly hoist and carry such a load? There is another side, of course. To state it positively, there is independence in skippering, a degree of autonomy seldom found in other professions. You alone control the life within your ark. You can decide where you are going to fish, when the boat goes, how fast it goes, how long and hard the crew will work, how long everyone sleeps, the weather conditions you will work in, the degrees of risk you will take, the kind of food you eat... (p. 75).

In 1992, forty-four vessels in Alaska sunk, eighty-seven people were rescued from sinking vessels, thirty-five died. In Spring 1988 forty-four died after ice fog moved in and consumed boats and crew. To put those numbers in perspective, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that the annual death rate for all U.S. Occupations is 7 per 100,000 workers. For commercial fishing in Alaska, the rate jumps to 200 per 100,000, making it the most deadly job in the country. For crab fishermen, whose season runs through the winter, the rate climbs to 660 per 100,000, or almost 100 times the national average (p. 98).

Debra Nielsen

I’m only five feet tall and I weigh one hundred pounds and so men have a protective instinct toward me. I’ve had to surmount that my whole life to actually get in and do anything. The only way I’ve been able to get past is by being quicker and knowing what I’m doing. It’s about leverage. ... You have to slow down. You have to use your head in a different way and your body in a different way. I think its important that people know how small I am because if I can do it, it means any woman can do it... (p. 86).

Christine Holmes

I really believe in the North Pacific Vessel Owner’s Association, they offer some really good courses, one of which is Medical Emergencies at Sea. I think anytime you take any kind of marine tech class you’re doing yourself a favor (p. 106).

Rebecque Raigoza

Developed such a sense of independence and strength. Things I thought I could never do I learned I would do out here. It’s just opened a whole new world for myself as a young woman. becoming a woman, I don’t know. There are so many possibilities now because I know I can do “a man’s job,” you know? There’s a lot of power that comes with that (p. 129).

Copyright 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press.


Fisheries Bycatch and Discards

The capture of non-target species—termed bycatch (or in some cases by-kill)—ranks as one of the major environmental impacts of the global marine fisheries industry. Bycatch, the vast majority of which is “discarded” overboard, includes:

  • marketable species that are too small or that are prohibited from landings
  • species that are not marketable
  • commercial species that are not the target of a species-specific fishery
  • species that are not fishery related, such as sea birds, sea turtles and marine mammals.


In a major study done for the FAO (Alverson et al. 1994) it was provisionally and conservatively estimated that 27.0 million tonnes of fish and invertebrate life (thus not including marine mammals, seabirds or turtles) are caught and then discarded—much of it dead or dying—by commercial fishery operations each year. This is equivalent to more than one-third the weight of all reported marine landings in commercial fisheries worldwide, estimated at some 77 million tonnes.

In addition to the ethical issues associated with wastage, there is great public concern about the environmental impacts of discard mortalities, such as potential biodiversity loss and reduced fish stocks. Perhaps as many as 200,000 marine mammals are killed annually in fishing gear (Alverson et al. 1994). Gill net fishing is likely the most serious threat to many porpoise populations; at least one species (the yaquita in the Gulf of California) and several populations of harbour porpoise are nearing extinction due to this fishery type. The inadvertent capture and mortality of sea turtles, notably those associated with shrimp trawls and some long-line fisheries, is an important factor in the continued endangerment of various populations throughout the world’s oceans (Dayton et al. 1995). High numbers of seabirds are also killed in some fisheries; long-line operations kill many tens of thousands of albatross annually and are considered the major threat to the survival of many albatross species and populations (Gales 1993).

The issue of bycatch has been a major factor in the now negative public perception of the commercial marine fisheries. As a consequence, there has been much research in recent years to improve the selectivity of fishing gear and fishing methods. Indeed, the FAO (1995) estimates that a 60% reduction in discards could be achieved by the year 2000 if a major concerted effort is undertaken by governments and industry.

Fish/Seafood Waste and Bycatch Disposal

Fish and seafood wastes can include the internal organs (viscera), heads, tails, blood, scales and wastewater or sludge (e.g., cooker juices, chemical coagulants used in primary treatment systems, oil, grease, suspended solids and so on). In many regions, most seafood-processing material from land-based industry is converted to fishmeal or fertilizer, with any remaining waste either dumped at sea, discharged into coastal waters, applied directly on land or landfilled. Waste from ship-based processing (i.e., fish cleaning) is comprised of fish parts (offal) and is invariably dumped at sea.

The impact of processed fish material on aquatic systems can vary widely according to the type of waste, the rate and amount of discharge, the ecological sensitivity of the receiving environment and physical factors influencing waste mixing and dispersion. The greatest concern involves the discharge of waste by processing companies into coastal environments; here the influx of excessive nutrients can lead to eutrophication and, subsequently, loss of local aquatic plant and animal populations.

The discharge of offal and bycatch from fishing boats can result in oxygen depletion of benthic (i.e., bottom) habitats if sufficient quantities accumulate on the seabed. However, discards and offal are considered factors contributing to the rapid growth of some seabird populations, though this may be to the detriment of less competitive species (Alverson et al. 1994).

Commercial Whaling

Commercial whaling continues to provoke intense public and political focus due (1) to the perceived uniqueness of whales, (2) to concerns about the humaneness of hunting techniques and (3) to the fact that most populations of whales—such as of blues, fins and rights—have been dramatically reduced. The current focus of hunts is the minke whale, which had been spared by the historical whaling fleets because of its small size (7 to 10 m) relative to the much larger “great” whales.

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted for a global moratorium on commercial whaling. This moratorium came into effect with the 1985/86 whaling season and is scheduled to last for an indefinite period. However, two countries—Norway and Russia—maintain official objections to the moratorium, and Norway uses that objection to continue commercial whaling in the Northeast Atlantic. Although Japan does not maintain an objection to the moratorium, it continues whaling in the North Pacific and the Southern Oceans, taking advantage of an article in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which allows member States to kill whales for purposes of scientific research. Less than 1,000 whales are killed annually by the Japanese and Norwegian fleets; virtually all of the whale meat ends up in the Japanese market for human consumption (Stroud 1996).

Seafood Safety: Pathogens, Chemical Pollutants and Natural Toxins

Human illness can occur from ingestion of contaminated seafood through three main routes:

  1. Raw, undercooked or poorly processed fish and shellfish that are contaminated by pathogens that can cause such diseases as hepatitis A, cholera or typhoid. Untreated or inadequately treated domestic sewage is the primary source of microbial pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, in seafood; some disease-causing organisms can persist for months in or on fish or within the digestive tracts or gills of fish and shellfish. The health risks posed by these pathogens can be virtually eliminated with proper sewage treatment and disposal, monitoring programmes, proper food processing and preparation techniques and, most importantly, through thorough cooking of seafood products (Food and Nutrition Board 1991).
  2. Consumption of seafood that has been contaminated by industrial chemicals such as mercury, lead and pesticides. The global nature and pervasiveness of environmental pollution means that a wide variety of industrial chemicals—such as pesticides and heavy metals (e.g., lead and mercury)—are typically found in seafood. However, the extent of contamination varies widely from region to region and between species. Of particular concern are those chemicals that can bioaccumulate in humans, such as PCBs, dioxins and mercury. In these cases, contaminant burdens (from a wide variety of sources, including seafood) increase over time to levels where toxic effects may be exerted. Though much remains to be understood concerning the effects on human health of chronic contaminant exposure, an impressive body of information suggests a clear potential for increased cancer risks, immunosuppression, reproductive impacts and subtle impairment of neurological development in foetuses and children. In a major report on seafood safety, the Institute of Medicine of the US Academy of Sciences (Food and Nutrition Board 1991) recommended—as have numerous environmental and human health organizations—that an active environmental stance aimed at pollution prevention would ultimately be the best means to avoid continuing human health problems and pollution disasters as a result of industrial chemicals.
  3. Consumption of seafood contaminated by natural algae-related toxins, such as domoic acid, ciguatoxin and saxitoxin. A wide range of toxins are produced by various algae species, and these can accumulate in a range of seafood products, notably shellfish (the exception being ciguatoxin, which is found only in reef fish). Resulting illnesses include “shellfish poisoning”—either paralytic (PSP), amnesic (ASP), diarrhetic (DSP) or neurotoxic (NSP)—and ciguatera. Mortalities continue to result from PSP and ciguatera; no fatalities have been reported from ASP since its discovery in 1987, when three people died. There has been what appears to be an increase in toxic algal blooms since the 1970s, as well as changes in the distribution and intensity of fish and shellfish toxicity. Though algal blooms are natural events, it is strongly suspected that coastal nutrient pollution—mainly from fertilizers and sewage—is enhancing bloom formation or duration and thereby increasing the likelihood of seafood toxicity episodes (Anderson 1994). It is important to note that, unlike for pathogens, thorough cooking does not reduce the toxicity of seafood contaminated by these natural poisons.



The term musculoskeletal disorders is used collectively for symptoms and diseases of the muscles, tendons and/or joints. Such disorders are often unspecified and can vary in duration. The main risk factors for work-related musculoskeletal disorders are heavy lifting, awkward work postures, repetitive work tasks, psychological stress and improper job organization (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Manual handling of fish in a fish-packing plant in Thailand


In 1985, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued the following statement: “Work-related diseases are defined as multifactorial, where the work environment and the performance of work contribute significantly; but as one of a number of factors to the causation of disease” (WHO 1985). There are, however, no internationally accepted criteria for the causes of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders appear in both developing and developed countries. They have not disappeared despite the development of new technologies permitting machines and computers to take over what was previously manual work (Kolare 1993).


Work aboard vessels is physically and mentally demanding. Most of the well-known risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders mentioned above are often present in the fishermen’s work situation and organization.

Traditionally most fishery workers have been males. Swedish studies on fishermen have shown that symptoms from the musculoskeletal system are common, and that they follow a logical pattern according to the fishing and type of working tasks on board. Seventy-four per cent of the fishermen had experienced symptoms of the musculoskeletal system during the previous 12 months. The largest number of fishermen considered the motion of the vessel to be a major strain, not only on the musculoskeletal system, but on the individual as a whole (Törner et al. 1988).

There are not many published studies on musculoskeletal disorders among workers in fish processing. There is a long tradition of female domination in the job of cutting and trimming the fillets in the fish-processing industry. Results from Icelandic, Swedish and Taiwanese studies show that female workers in the fish-processing industry had a higher prevalence of symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders of the neck or shoulders than women who had more varied jobs (Ólafsdóttir and Rafnsson1997; Ohlsson et al. 1994; Chiang et al. 1993). These symptoms were thought to be causally related to the highly repetitive tasks with a short cycle time of less than 30 seconds. Work with highly repetitive tasks without the possibility of rotation between different jobs is a high risk factor. Chiang and co-workers (1993) studied workers in the fish-processing industry (men and women) and found a higher prevalence of symptoms of the upper limbs among those with jobs involving high repetitiveness or forceful movements, as compared to those in the same factories who had jobs with low repetitiveness and low-force movements.

As mentioned above, musculoskeletal disorders have not disappeared despite the development of new technologies. The flow line is an example of one new technique which has been introduced in the fish-processing industry ashore and on board larger processing vessels. The flow line consists of a system of conveyor belts which transport the fish through decapitating and filleting machines to the workers who seize each fillet and cut and trim it with a knife. Other conveyor belts transport the fish to the packing station, after which the fish is quick-frozen. The flow line has changed the prevalence of musculoskeletal symptoms among women working in fish-filleting plants. After the introduction of the flow line, the prevalence of symptoms of the upper limbs increased while the prevalence of symptoms of the lower limbs decreased (Ólafsdóttir and Rafnsson 1997).

In order to develop a strategy for their prevention it is important to understand the causes, mechanisms, prognosis and prevention of musculoskeletal disorders (Kolare et al. 1993). The disorders cannot be prevented by new technologies exclusively. The whole working environment, including the work organization, has to be taken into consideration.



Thursday, 10 March 2011 16:57

Health Problems and Disease Patterns

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Work in the fishing and fish-processing industry shows a clear differentiation according to gender, with the men traditionally doing the actual fishing while the women work at fish processing on shore. Many of the persons working on fishing vessels may be looked upon as unskilled; the deckhands, for instance, receive their training in the work on board. The navigators (captain, skipper and mate), the machine room personnel (engineer, machinist and stoker), the radio operators and the cooks all have different educational backgrounds. The main assignment is to fish; other tasks include loading of the vessel, which is done on the open sea, followed by the fish processing, which takes place to various stages of completion. The only common exposure of these groups occurs during their stay on board the vessel, which is in constant motion both while they are working and resting. Fish processing on shore will be dealt with later.


The most dangerous work tasks for the individual fishers are related to the setting out and hauling in of the fishing gear. In trawler fishing, for example, the trawl is laid out in a sequence of tasks involving the complicated coordination of different types of winches (see “Major sectors and processes” in this chapter). All operations take place at great speed, and teamwork is absolutely essential. While setting the trawl, the connecting of the trawl doors to the warp (wire ropes) is one of the most dangerous moments, as these doors weigh several hundred kilograms. Other parts of the fishing gear are also too heavy to be handled without the use of derricks and winches while shooting the trawl (i.e., heavy gear and bobbings move freely around before being hoisted overboard).

The whole procedure of setting and hauling aboard the trawl, purse seine and nets is carried out using wire cables which pass across the working area often. The cables are at high tension, as there is often an extremely heavy pull from the fishing gear in a direction opposite of the forward motion of the fishing vessel itself. There is a great risk of getting entangled by or falling onto the fishing gear and thus being drawn overboard, or of falling overboard when laying out the fishing gear. There is a risk of crushing and trapping injuries to fingers, hands and arms, and the heavy gear may fall or roll and thus injure legs and feet.

Bleeding and gutting the fish are often done manually and take place on the deck or on a shelterdeck. The pitching and rolling of the vessels make injuries to the hands and fingers common from knife cuts or from pricks of fish bones and spines. Infections in wounds are frequent. Long-line and hand-line fishing involve the risk of wounds to fingers and hands from the hooks. As this type of fishing is becoming more and more automated it is becoming associated with dangers from line haulers and winches.

The method of managing fishing by limiting the amount caught from a restricted natural resource area also influences the injury rate. In some places pursuit quotas allocate to the vessels certain days when they are allowed to fish, and the fishers feel they have to go fishing at these times whatever the weather.

Fatal accidents

Fatal accidents at sea are easily studied through mortality registers, as accidents at sea are coded on the death certificates as water transport accidents according to the International Classification of Diseases, with an indication as to whether the injury was sustained while employed on board. Death rates from work-related fatal accidents among workers in the fishing industry are high, and higher than for many other occupational groups on shore. Table 1 shows the mortality rate per 100,000 for fatal accidents in different countries. The fatal injuries are traditionally classified as (1) individual accidents (i.e., individuals falling overboard, being swept overboard by heavy seas or being fatally injured by machinery) or (2) individuals lost as a result of vessel casualties (e.g., because of foundering, capsizing, missing vessels, explosions and fires). Both categories are related to the weather conditions. Accidents to individual crew members outnumber the others.

Table 1. Mortality figures on fatal injuries among fishermen as reported in studies from various countries


Study period

Rates per 100,000

United Kingdom



United Kingdom



United Kingdom






New Zealand






















The safety of a vessel depends on its design, size and type, and on factors such as stability, freeboard, weather-tight integrity and structural protection against fire. Negligent navigation or errors of judgement may result in casualties to vessels, and the fatigue which follows long spells of duty may also play a role, as well as being an important cause of personal accidents.

Better safety records of more modern vessels may be due to the combined effects of improved human and technical efficiency. Training of personnel, proper use of flotation support apparatus, suitable clothing and the use of buoyant overalls may all increase the probability of rescue of persons in the event of an accident. More widespread use of other safety measures, including safety lines, helmets and safety shoes, may be needed in the fishing industry in general, as discussed elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia.

Non-fatal injuries

Non-fatal injuries are also quite common in the fishing industry (see table 2). The body regions of injured workers most frequently mentioned are the hands, lower limbs, head and neck and upper limbs, followed by the chest, spine and abdomen, in decreasing order of frequency. The most common types of traumas are open wounds, fractures, strains, sprains and contusions. Many non-fatal injuries may be serious, involving, for instance, amputation of fingers, hands, arms and legs as well as injuries to the head and neck. Infections, lacerations and minor traumas of the hands and fingers are quite frequent, and treatment with antibiotics is often recommended by the ship’s doctors in all cases.

Table 2. The most important jobs or places related to risk of injuries

Job or tasks

On board vessels injury

On shore injury

Setting and hauling trawl, purse seine and other fishing gear

Entangled in the fishing gear or wire cables, crushing injuries, fall overboard


Connecting trawl doors

Crushing injuries, fall overboard


Bleeding and gutting

Cuts from knives or machines,
musculoskeletal disorders

Cuts from knives or machines,
musculoskeletal disorders

Long-line and hand-line

Wounds from hooks, entangled in the line


Heavy lifts

Musculoskeletal disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders


Cuts, amputations using knives or machines, musculoskeletal disorders

Cuts, amputations using knives or machines, musculoskeletal disorders

Trimming fillets

Cuts from knives, musculoskeletal disorders

Cuts from knives, musculoskeletal disorders

Work in confined spaces, loading and landing

Intoxication, asphyxia

Intoxication, asphyxia



Information on the general health of fishers and overviews of their illnesses are mainly obtained from two types of reports. One source is the case series compiled by ships’ doctors, and the other is the medical advice reports, which report on evacuations, hospitalizations and repatriations. Unfortunately, most if not all of these reports give only the numbers of patients and percentages.

The most frequently reported non-traumatic conditions leading to consultations and hospitalization arise as a result of dental conditions, gastro-intestinal illness, musculoskeletal conditions, psychiatric/neurological conditions, respiratory conditions, cardiological conditions and dermatological complaints. In one series reported by a ship’s doctor, psychiatric conditions were the most common reason for evacuating workers from trawlers on long-term fishing voyages, with injuries only coming in second place as a reason for rescuing fishers. In another series the most common illnesses which necessitated repatriation were cardiological and psychiatric conditions.

Occupational asthma

Occupational asthma is frequently found among workers in the fish industry. It is associated with several types of fish, but most commonly it is related to exposure to crustaceans and molluscs—for example, shrimp, crabs, shellfish and so on. The processing of fishmeal is also often related to asthma, as are similar processes, such as grinding shells (shrimp shells in particular).

Hearing loss

Excessive noise as a cause of decreased hearing acuity is well recognized among workers in the fish-processing industry. The machine room personnel on the vessels are at extreme risk, but so are those working with the older equipment in fish processing. Organized hearing conservation programmes are widely needed.


In some studies on fishers and sailors from the merchant fleet, high death rates because of suicide have been reported. There is also an excess of deaths in the category where the doctors were not able to decide whether the injury was accidental or self- inflicted. There is a widespread belief that suicides in general are underreported, and this is rumoured to be even greater in the fishing industry. Psychiatric literature gives descriptions of calenture, a behavioural phenomenon where the predominant symptom is an irresistible impulse for sailors to jump into the sea from their vessels. The underlying causes for the risk for suicide have not been studied among fishermen particularly; however, consideration of the psychosocial situation of the workforce at sea, as discussed in another article in this chapter, seems a not unlikely place to start. There are indications that the suicide risk increases when the workers stop fishing and go ashore both for a short while or definitely.

Fatal poisoning and asphyxia

Fatal poisoning occurs in incidents of fire on board fishing vessels, and is related to inhalation of toxic smoke. There are also reports of fatal and non-fatal intoxication resulting from the leak of refrigerants or the use of chemicals for preserving shrimp or fish, and from toxic gases from the anaerobic decay of organic material in unventilated holds. The refrigerants concerned range from the highly toxic methyl chloride to ammonia. Some deaths have been attributed to exposure to sulphur dioxide in confined spaces, which is reminiscent of the incidents of silo-filler’s disease, where there is exposure to nitrogen oxides. Research has similarly shown that there are mixtures of toxic gases (i.e., carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide), along with low partial pressure of oxygen in holds on board ship and on shore, which have resulted in casualties, both fatal and non-fatal, often related to industrial fish such as herring and capelin. In commercial fishing, there are some reports of intoxication when landing fish that have been related to trimethylamine and endotoxins causing symptoms resembling influenza, which may, however, lead to death. Attempts could be made to reduce these risks through improved education and alterations to equipment.

Skin diseases

Skin diseases affecting hands are common. These may be related to contact with fish proteins or to the use of rubber gloves. If gloves are not used, the hands are constantly wet and some workers may become sensitized. Thus most of the skin diseases are contact eczema, either allergic or non-allergic, and the conditions are often constantly present. Boils and abscesses are recurrent problems also affecting hands and fingers.


Some studies, although not all, show low mortality from all causes among fishermen as compared to the general male population. This phenomenon of low mortality in a group of workers is called the “healthy worker effect”, referring to the consistent tendency for actively employed people to have more favourable mortality experience than the population at large. However, due to high mortality from accidents at sea, the results from many mortality studies on fishermen show high death rates for all causes.

The mortality from ischemic heart diseases is either elevated or decreased in studies on fishermen. Mortality from cerebrovascular diseases and respiratory diseases is average among fishermen.

Unknown causes

Mortality from unknown causes is higher among fishermen than other men in several studies. Unknown causes are special numbers in the International Classification of Diseases used when the doctor who issues the death certificate is not able to state any specific disease or injury as the cause of death. Sometimes deaths registered under the category of unknown causes are due to accidents in which the body was never found, and are most likely water transport accidents or suicides when the death occurs at sea. In any case an excess of deaths from unknown causes can be an indication, not only of a dangerous job, but also of a dangerous lifestyle.

Accidents occurring other than at sea

An excess of fatal traffic accidents, various poisonings and other accidents, suicide and homicide have been found among fishermen (Rafnsson and Gunnarsdóttir 1993). In this connection the hypothesis has been suggested that seamen are influenced by their dangerous occupation towards hazardous behaviour or a hazardous lifestyle. The fishermen themselves have suggested that they become unaccustomed to traffic, which could provide an explanation for the traffic accidents. Other suggestions have focused on the attempts of fishermen, returning from long voyages during which they have been away from family and friends, to catch up on their social life. Sometimes fishermen spend only a short time ashore (a day or two) between long voyages. The excess of deaths from accidents other than those at sea points to an unusual lifestyle.


The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which among other things has a role in evaluating industries in respect to the potential cancer risks for their workers, has not included fishing or the fish-processing industry among those industrial branches showing clear signs of cancer risk. Several mortality and cancer morbidity studies discuss the cancer risk among fishermen (Hagmar et al. 1992; Rafnsson and Gunnarsdóttir 1994, 1995). Some of them have found an increased risk for different cancers among fishermen, and suggestions are often given as to possible causes for the cancer risks which involve both occupational and lifestyle factors. The cancers which will be discussed here are cancer of the lip, lung and stomach.

Cancer of the lip

Fishing has traditionally been related to lip cancer. Previously this was thought to be related to exposure to tars used to preserve the nets, since the workers had used their mouths as “third hands” when handling the nets. Currently the aetiology of lip cancer among fishermen is considered to be the joint effect of exposure to ultraviolet radiation during outdoor work and smoking.

Cancer of the lung

The studies on lung cancer are not in accord. Some studies have not found increased risk of lung cancer among fishermen. Studies of fishermen from Sweden showed less lung cancer than the reference population (Hagmar et al. 1992). In an Italian study the lung cancer risk was thought to be related to smoking and not to the occupation. Other studies on fishermen have found increased risk of lung cancer, and still others have not confirmed this. Without information on smoking habits it has been difficult to evaluate the role of smoking versus the occupational factors in the possible cases. There are indications of the need to study separately the different occupational groups on the fishing vessels, as engine room personnel have elevated risk for lung cancer, thought to be due to exposure to asbestos or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Further studies are thus needed to clarify the relation of lung cancer and fishing.

Cancer of the stomach

Many studies have found elevated risk of stomach cancer in fishermen. In the Swedish studies the risk of stomach cancer was thought to be related to high consumption of fatty fish contaminated with organochlorine compounds (Svenson et al. 1995). At present it is uncertain what role dietary, lifestyle and occupational factors play in the association of stomach cancer with fishing.



With the development of industrialized fish processing in the 19th and 20th centuries, wives and families were displaced from household-based processing and vending, and ended up unemployed or working for fish companies. The introduction of corporate-owned trawlers and, more recently, corporate-owned fish quotas (in the form of enterprise allocations and individual transferable quotas) has displaced male fishers. Changes of this kind have transformed many fishery communities into one-industry villages.

There are different kinds of one-industry fishery villages, but all are characterized by high dependence on a single employer for employment, and significant corporate influence within the community and sometimes the home lives of workers. In the most extreme case, one-industry fishery villages are actually company towns, in which a single corporation owns not only the plant and some of the vessels, but also local housing, stores, medical services and so on, and exercises significant control over local government representatives, the media and other social institutions.

Somewhat more common are villages in which local employment is dominated by a single, often vertically integrated corporate employer that uses its control over employment and markets to indirectly influence local politics and other social institutions associated with the family and community lives of workers. The definition of one-industry fishery villages can also be extended to include fish-processing firms that, despite their location within larger communities that are not fishery dependent, operate with significant autonomy from those communities. This structure is common in the shrimp-processing industry of India, which makes extensive use of young female migrant labourers, often recruited by contractors from nearby states. These workers generally live in compounds on company property. They are cut off from the local community by long working hours, a lack of kinship connections and by linguistic barriers. Such workplaces are like company towns in that companies exert significant influence over the non-working lives of their workers, and workers cannot easily turn to local authorities and other members of the community for support.

Economic uncertainty, unemployment, marginalization within decision-making processes, low income and limited access to and control over services are important determinants of health. These are all, to varying degrees, features of one-industry fishery villages. Fluctuations in fisheries markets and both natural and fishery-related fluctuations in the availability of fishery resources are a fundamental feature of fishery communities. Such fluctuations generate social and economic uncertainty. Fishery communities and households have often developed institutions that help them survive these periods of uncertainty. However, these fluctuations appear to be occurring more frequently in recent years. In the current context of global overfishing of commercial fish stocks, shifting effort to new species and regions, the globalization of markets and the development of aquacultured products which compete with wild fishery products in the marketplace, increased employment uncertainty, plant closures and low incomes are becoming common. In addition, when closures occur, they are more likely to be permanent because the resource is gone and work has moved elsewhere.

Employment uncertainty and unemployment are important sources of psychosocial stress that may affect men and women differently. The displaced worker/fisher must grapple with loss of self-esteem, loss of income, stress and, in extreme cases, loss of family wealth. Other family members must cope with the effects of workers’ displacement on their home and working lives. For example, household strategies for coping with prolonged male absence can become a problem when trawler workers find themselves unemployed and their wives find the autonomy and routines that helped them survive male absence threatened by the prolonged presence of displaced husbands. In small-scale fishing households, wives may have to adjust to longer absences and social isolation as their family members go further afield to find fish and employment. Where wives were also dependent on the fishery for wage employment, they may also have to struggle with the effects of their own unemployment on their health.

The stress of unemployment can be greater in one-industry communities where plant closures threaten the future of entire communities and the economic costs of job loss are enhanced by a collapse in the value of such personal assets as homes and cottages. Where, as is often the case, finding alternative employment requires moving away, there will be additional stresses on workers, their spouses and their children associated with displacement. When plant closures are accompanied by the transfer of fish quotas to other communities and the erosion of local educational, medical and other services in response to out migration and the collapse of local economies, the threats to health will be greater.

Dependence on a single employer can make it difficult for workers to participate in decision-making processes. In fisheries, as in other industries, some corporations have used the one-industry structure to control workers, oppose unionization and manipulate public understandings of issues and developments within the workplace and beyond. In the case of the Indian shrimp processing industry, migrant female processing workers suffer from terrible living conditions, extremely long hours, compulsory overtime and routine violation of their work contracts. In western countries, corporations may use their role as gate-keepers controlling seasonal workers’ eligibility for such programmes as unemployment insurance in negotiations with workers concerning unionization and working conditions. Workers in some one-industry towns are unionized, but their role in decision-making processes can still be mitigated by limited employment alternatives, by a desire to find local employment for their wives and children and by ecological and economic uncertainty. Workers can experience a sense of helplessness and may feel obliged to keep working despite illness when their ability to access work, housing and social programmes is controlled by a single employer.

Limited access to adequate medical services is also a psychosocial stressor. In company towns, medical professionals may be company employees and, as in mining and other industries, this can limit workers’ access to independent medical advice. In all types of one-industry villages, cultural, class and other differences between medical personnel and fishworkers, and high rates of turnover among medical professionals, can limit the quality of local medical services. Medical personnel rarely come from fishery communities and hence are often unfamiliar with the occupational health risks fishworkers encounter and the stresses associated with life in one-industry towns. Turnover rates among such personnel may be high due to relatively low professional incomes and discomfort with rural lifestyles and unfamiliar fishery cultures. In addition, medical personnel may tend to associate more with local elites, such as the plant management, than with workers and their families. These patterns can interfere with doctor-patient relations, continuity of care and medical expertise relevant to fisheries work. Access to appropriate diagnostic services for such fishery-related illnesses as repetitive strain injuries and occupational asthma may be very limited in these communities. Loss of work can also interfere with access to medical services by eliminating access to drug programmes and other insured medical services.

Strong social supports can help mitigate the health effects of unemployment, displacement and economic uncertainty. One-industry villages can encourage the development of dense social and kinship-based ties between workers and, particularly if plants are locally owned, between workers and employers. These social supports can mitigate the effects of economic vulnerability, difficult working conditions and ecological uncertainty. Family members can watch out for each other in the workplace and sometimes help out when workers get into financial trouble. Where fishery workers are able to maintain some economic independence through subsistence activities, they can retain more control over their lives and work than where access to these is lost. Increasing employment uncertainty, plant closures and local competition for jobs and government-adjustment programmes can erode the strength of these local networks, contributing to conflict and isolation within these communities.

When plant closures mean moving away, displaced workers risk loss of access to these social networks of support and subsistence-related sources of independence.



On-shore fish processing includes a variety of activities. The range is from small, low-technology fish processing, like drying or smoking of local catch for the local market, to the large, high-technology modern factory, producing highly specialized products that are consumer packed for an international market. In this article the discussion is limited to industrial fish processing. The level of technology is an important factor for the psychosocial environment in industrialized fish-processing plants. This influences the organization of work tasks, the wage systems, the control and monitoring mechanisms and the opportunities for the employees to have influence on their work and the corporate policy. Another important aspect when discussing psychosocial characteristics of the workforce in the on-shore fish-processing industry is the division of labour by sex, which is widespread in the industry. This means that men and women are assigned to different work tasks according to their sex and not to their skills.

In fish-processing plants, some departments are characterized by high technology and high degree of specialization, while others might use less advanced technology and be more flexible in their organization. The departments characterized by a high degree of specialization are, as a rule, those with a predominantly female workforce, while the departments where the work tasks are less specialized are those with a predominantly male workforce. This is based on an idea that certain work tasks are either fit for males only or females only. Tasks seen as fit only for males will have higher status than the tasks done by female workers only. Consequently, men will be unwilling to do “women’s work”, while most women are eager to do “men’s work” if allowed to. Higher status will also as a rule mean higher salary and better opportunities for advancement (Husmo and Munk-Madsen 1994; Skaptadóttir 1995).

A typical high-technology department is the production department, where the workers are lined up around the conveyor belt, cutting or packing fish fillets. The psychosocial environment is characterized by monotonous and repetitive tasks and a low degree of social interaction among the workers. The wage system is based on individual performance (bonus system), and individual workers are monitored by computer systems in addition to the supervisor. This causes high stress levels, and this type of work also increases the risk of developing strain-related syndromes among the workers. The workers’ restriction to the conveyor belt also reduces the possibilities for informal communication with the management in order to influence corporate policy and/or promote one’s self for a raise or a promotion (Husmo and Munk-Madsen 1994). Since the workers of highly specialized departments learn only a limited number of tasks, these are the most likely to be sent home when the production is reduced due to temporary lack of raw material or due to market problems. These are also the ones that are most likely to be replaced by machines or industrial robots as new technology is introduced (Husmo and Søvik 1995).

An example of a department of lower technology levels is the raw material department, where workers drive trucks and fork-lifts at the pier, unload, sort and wash the fish. Here we often find high flexibility in the work tasks, and the workers do different jobs throughout the day. The wage system is based on an hourly rate, and individual performance is not measured by computers, reducing stress and contributing to a more relaxed atmosphere. Variation in work tasks stimulates teamwork and improves the psycho- social environment in many ways. The social interactions increase, and the risk of strain-related syndromes is reduced. Possibilities for promotion increase, since learning a wider range of work tasks makes the workers more qualified for higher positions. Flexibility allows informal communication with the management/supervisor in order to influence corporate policy and individual promotion (Husmo 1993; Husmo and Munk-Madsen 1994).

The general trend is that the level of processing technology increases, leading to more specialization and automation in the fish-processing industry. This has consequences for the psychosocial environment of the workers as outlined above. The division of labour by sex means that the psychosocial environment for most women is worse than it is for men. The fact that women have the work tasks that are the most likely to be replaced by robots adds an additional dimension to this discussion, as it limits the work opportunities for women in general. In some cases these implications might apply not only to female workers, but also to lower social classes in the workforce or even to different races (Husmo 1995).



Two dimensions are of special importance in the psychosocial characteristic of fishwork at sea. One dimension is the issue of scale and technology. Fisheries may be divided into: small-scale, artisanal, coastal or in-shore fisheries; and large-scale, industrial, deep sea, distant water or off-shore fishing. The psychosocial working and living conditions of crew members in small-scale fishing differ tremendously from the conditions faced by crews on large-scale vessels.

The second dimension is gender. Fishing vessels are generally all-male environments. Although exceptions occur in both small-scale and large-scale fishing, one-gender crews are most common worldwide. However, gender plays a role in the character of all crews. The sea/land split which fishers face and have to cope with is to a large extent a gendered division.

Small Fishing Vessels

On board small fishing vessels the crew members are usually related in several ways. A crew may consist of father and son, of brothers or of a mixture of close or more distant kin. Other community members may be in the crew. Depending on availability of male relatives or local customs, women are crewing. Wives may be operating a vessel together with their husbands, or a daughter may be crewing for her father.

A crew is more than a company of workmates. As kinship ties, neighbourhood ties and local community life most often bind them together, the vessel and workforce at sea is socially integrated with family and community life on shore. The ties have a two-way effect. Cooperation in fishing and belonging to a vessel confirms and tightens other social relations as well. When relatives are fishing together, a crew member cannot be replaced by a stranger, even if someone more experienced comes looking for a berth. Fishers have security in their job in such a tight network. On the other hand this also puts restrictions on switching to another vessel out of loyalty to one’s family.

The many-sided social relations mitigate conflicts on board. Small-scale fishers share a narrow physical space and are subjected to unpredictable and sometimes dangerous conditions of nature. Under these demanding circumstances it may be necessary to avoid open conflicts. The authority of the skipper is also constrained by the knitted network of relations.

Generally small-scale vessels will come on shore every day, which gives crew members the opportunity to interact with others on a regular basis, although their working hours may be long. Isolation is rare but may be felt by fishers who operate a vessel alone. Nevertheless radio communication at sea and traditions of comrade vessels operating in the vicinity of each other diminish the isolative effects of working alone in modern small-scale fishing.

Learning processes and safety on board are marked by the ties of kinship and locality. The crew are responsible for and dependent on each other. To work skilfully and responsibly may be of utmost importance in unforeseen situations of bad weather or accidents. The spectrum of skills required in small-scale fishing is very wide. The smaller the crew, the lower the level of specialization—workers must have comprehensive knowledge and be able to do a variety of tasks.

Unawareness or unwillingness in work is severely sanctioned by stigmatization. Every crew member has to do necessary tasks willingly, preferably without being told. Orders are supposed to be unnecessary except for the timing of a series of tasks. Cooperation in mutual respect is thus an important skill. The display of serious interest and responsibility is helped by the socialization in a fishing family or village. The diversity of work furthers the respect for experience in any position on board, and egalitarian values are usual.

Successful coping with the demanding cooperation, timing and skills needed in small-scale fishing under changing conditions of weather and seasons creates a high level of job satisfaction and a locally rewarded and strong work identity. Women who go fishing appreciate the status rise connected to their successful participation in men’s work. However, they also have to cope with the risk of losing ascriptions of femininity. Men who fish with women, on the other hand, are challenged by the risk of losing ascriptions of masculine superiority when women show their ability in fishing.

Large Fishing Vessels

In large-scale fishing, crew members are isolated from family and community while at sea, and many have only short periods on shore between trips. The duration of a fishing trip generally varies between 10 days and 3 months. Social interaction is limited to the mates on board the vessel. This isolation is demanding. Integration into family and community life when on shore may also be difficult and awaken a sense of homelessness. Fishermen highly depend on wives to keep alive their social network.

In an all-male crew the absence of women and lack of intimacy may contribute to rough sexualized conversations, sexualized bragging and a focus on porno movies. Such a ship culture may develop as an unhealthy way of exposing and confirming masculinity. Partly to prevent the development of a harsh, sexist and deprived atmosphere, Norwegian companies have since the 1980s employed up to 20% women in the crew on factory ships. A gender-mixed work environment is said to reduce the psychological stress; women are reported to bring a softer tone and more intimacy into the social relations on board (Munk-Madsen 1990).

The mechanization and specialization of work on board industrialized vessels creates a repetitive working routine. Shift work in two watches is usual as fishing goes on round the clock. Life on board consists of a cycle of working, eating and sleeping. In cases of huge catches, sleeping hours may be cut down. The physical space is restricted, the work monotonous and tiring and social interaction with others than the workmates impossible. As long as the vessel is at sea there is no escape from tensions among crew members. This poses a psychological stress on the crew.

The crews of deep-sea vessels with 20 to 80 workers on board cannot be recruited in a tight network of kinship and neighbourhood ties. Yet some Japanese companies have changed recruitment policies and prefer to staff their vessels with personnel who know each other through community or kin relations and who come from communities with traditions of fishing. This is done to solve problems of violent conflicts and excess drinking (Dyer 1988). Also, in the North Atlantic, companies to some extent prefer to hire fishers from the same community to support the social control and create a friendly environment on board.

The major reward in deep sea fishing is the chance of earning good salaries. For women it is furthermore the chance of a rise in status as they cope with work that is traditionally male and culturally ranked as superior to female work (Husmo and Munk-Madsen 1994).

The international deep-sea fishing fleet exploiting global waters may operate their vessels with crews of mixed nationalities. For instance, this is the case with the Taiwanese fleet, the world’s largest deep-sea fishing fleet. This may also be the case in joint venture fisheries where industrialized nations’ vessels are operating in developing countries’ waters. In cross-national crews, communication on board may suffer from language difficulties. Also the maritime hierarchy on board such vessels may be further stratified by an ethnic dimension. Fish workers of different ethnicity and nationality than the mother country of the vessel, particularly if the vessel is operating in home waters, may be treated far below the level that is otherwise required by officers. This concerns wage conditions and basic provisioning on board as well. Such practices may create racist work environments, increase tensions in crew on board and skew power relations between officers and crew.

Poverty, the hope of good earnings and the globalization of deep-sea fishing has fostered illegal recruitment practices. Crews from the Philippines are reported to be indebted to recruitment agencies and working in foreign waters without contracts and without security in pay or safety measures. Working in a highly mobile deep-sea fleet far from home and without support of any authorities leads to high insecurity, which may exceed the risks faced in stormy weather on the open ocean (Cura 1995; Vacher 1994).



Thursday, 10 March 2011 16:45

Major Sectors and Processes

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Thursday, 10 March 2011 16:42

Case Study: Indigenous Divers

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Indigenous peoples living in coastal areas have for centuries depended on the sea for their survival. In the more tropical waters they have not only fished from traditional boats but also engaged in spear fishing and shell gathering activities, diving either from shore or from boats. The waters in the past were plentiful and there was no need to dive deeply for long periods of time. More recently the situation has changed. Overfishing and the destruction of breeding grounds has made it impossible for indigenous peoples to sustain themselves. Many have turned to diving deeper for longer periods of time in order to bring home a sufficient catch. As the capacity of humans to stay underwater without some form of support is quite limited, indigenous divers in several parts of the world have begun using compressors to supply air from the surface or to use self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) to extend the amount of time that they are able to stay underwater (bottom time).

In the developing world, indigenous divers are found in Central and South America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It has been estimated by the University of California at Berkeley, Department of Geography’s Ocean Conservation and Environmental Action Network (OCEAN) Initiative, that there may be as many as 30,000 working indigenous divers in Central America, South America and the Caribbean. (It is estimated that the Moskito Indians in Central America may have a diving population as high as 450 divers.) Researchers at the Divers Diseases Research Centre of the United Kingdom estimate that in the Philippines there may be between 15,000 to 20,000 indigenous divers; in Indonesia the number has yet to be determined but it may be as many as 10,000.

In Southeast Asia some indigenous divers use compressors on boats with air lines or hoses attached to the divers. The compressors are normally commercial type compressors used in filling stations or are compressors salvaged from large trucks and driven by gasoline or diesel engines. Depths may range to more than 90 m and dives may exceed durations of 2 hours. Indigenous divers work to gather fish and shellfish for human consumption, aquaria fish, seashells for the tourist industry, pearl oysters and, at certain times of the year, sea cucumbers. Their fishing techniques include using underwater fish traps, spear fishing and pounding two stones together to drive fish into a net down current. Lobsters, crabs and shellfish are gathered by hand (see figure 1).

Figure 1. An indigenous diver gathering fish.


David Gold

The indigenous Sea Gypsy Divers of Thailand

In Thailand there are approximately 400 divers using compressors and living on the west coast. They are known as Sea Gypsies and were once a nomadic people that have settled in 12 rather permanent villages in three provinces. They are literate and almost all have completed compulsory education. Virtually all of the divers speak Thai and most speak their own language, Pasa Chaaw Lee, which is an unwritten Malay language.

Only males dive, starting as young as 12 years of age and stopping, if they survive, around the age of 50. They dive from open boats, ranging from 3 to 11 m in length. The compressors used are powered by either a gasoline or a diesel powered motor and are primitive, cycling unfiltered air into a pressure tank and down 100 m of hose to a diver. This practice of using ordinary air compressors without filtration can lead to contamination of breathing air with carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide from diesel motors, lead from leaded gasoline and combustion particulates. The hose is attached to a normal diving mask which covers the eyes and nose. Inspiration and expiration is done through the nose, with the expired air escaping from the skirt of the mask. The only protection from marine life and the temperature of the water is a roll collar, a long sleeve shirt, a pair of plastic shoes and a pair of athletic style trousers. A pair of cotton mesh gloves offers the hands a certain degree of protection (see figure 2).

Figure 2.  A diver off of Phuket, Thailand, preparing to dive from an open boat.


David Gold

A research project was developed in concert with Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health to study the diving practices of the Sea Gypsies and to develop educational and informational interventions to raise the divers’ awareness of the risks they face and measures that can be taken to reduce those risks. As part of this project 334 divers were interviewed by trained public health care workers in 1996 and 1997. The response rate to the questionnaires was over 90%. Although the survey data are still under analysis, several points have been extracted for this case study.

Regarding diving practices, 54% of the divers were asked how many dives they made on their last day of diving. Of the 310 divers that responded to the question, 54% indicated that they made less than 4 dives; 35% indicated 4 to 6 dives and 11% indicated 7 or more dives.

When asked about the depth of their first dive of their last day of diving, of the 307 divers who responded to this question, 51% indicated 18 m or less; 38% indicated between 18 and 30 m; 8% indicated between 30 and 40 m; 2% indicated more than 40 m, with one diver reporting a dive at a depth of 80 m. A 16 year-old diver in one village reported that he had performed 20 dives on his last day of diving to depths of less than 10 m. Since he has been diving he has been struck 3 times by decompression sickness.

A high frequency of dives, deep depths, long bottom times and short surface intervals are factors which can increase the risk of decompression sickness.


An early random sampling of the survey revealed that the 3 most significant risks included an interruption of the air supply leading to an emergency ascent, injury from marine life and decompression sickness.

Unlike sport or professional divers, the indigenous diver has no alternative air supply. A cut, crimped or separated air hose leaves only two options. The first is to find a fellow diver and share air from one mask, a skill which is virtually unknown to the Sea Gypsies; the second is an emergency swim to the surface, which can and frequently does lead to barotrauma (injury related to rapidly reducing pressure) and decompression sickness (caused by expanding nitrogen gas bubbles in the blood and tissue as the diver surfaces). When asked about separation from diving partners during working dives, of the 331 divers who responded to the question, 113 (34%) indicated that they worked 10 m or more away from their partners and an additional 24 indicated that they were not concerned about the whereabouts of partners during dives. The research project is currently instructing the divers how to share air from one mask while encouraging them to dive closer together.

Since indigenous divers are frequently working with dead or injured marine life, there is always the potential that a hungry predator may also attack the indigenous diver. The diver may also be handling poisonous marine animals, thus increasing the risk of illness or injury.

Regarding decompression sickness, 83% of divers said they considered pain as part of the job; 34% indicated they had recovered from decompression sickness, and 44% of those had had decompression sickness 3 or more times.

An occupational health intervention

On the implementation side of this project, 16 health care workers at the village level along with 3 Sea Gypsies have been taught to be trainers. Their task is to work with the divers on a boat-by-boat basis using short (15 minute) interventions to raise the awareness of the divers about the risks they face; give the divers the knowledge and skills to reduce those risks; and develop emergency procedures to assist sick or injured divers. The train-the-trainer workshop developed 9 rules, a short lesson plan for each rule and an information sheet to use as a handout.

The rules are as follows:

  1. The deepest dive should be first, with each subsequent dive shallower.
  2. The deepest part of any dive should come first, followed by work in shallower water.
  3. A safety stop on ascent at 5 m after every deep dive is mandatory.
  4. Come up slowly from every dive.
  5. Allow a minimum of one hour on the surface between deep dives.
  6. Drink large amounts of water before and after each dive.
  7. Stay within sight of another diver.
  8. Never hold your breath.
  9. Always display the international dive flag whenever there are divers underwater.


The Sea Gypsies were born and raised next to or on the sea. They depend on the sea for their existence. Although they are sickened or injured as a result of their diving practices they continue to dive. The interventions listed above will probably not stop the Sea Gypsies from diving, but they will make them aware of the risk they face and provide them the means to reduce this risk.



Thursday, 10 March 2011 16:41

General Profile

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Fishing is among the oldest production activities of humankind. Archaeological and historical research shows that fishing—both freshwater and ocean fishing—was widespread in ancient civilizations. In fact, it seems that human settlements were frequently established in areas of good fishing. These findings concerning the role of fishing for human sustenance are confirmed by modern day anthropological research of primitive societies.

During the past few centuries, the world’s fisheries have been radically transformed. Traditional fishing methods have to a large extent been superseded by a more modern technology stemming from the industrial revolution. This has been followed by a dramatic increase in effective fishing effort, a much smaller increase in global catch levels and a serious decline in many fish stocks. The industrialization of global fishing has also led to destabilization and decline of many traditional fisheries. Finally, increased worldwide fishing pressure has given rise to international disputes about fishing rights.

In 1993, the world harvest of fish was in the neighbourhood of 100 million metric tonnes per annum (FAO 1995). Of this quantity, fish-farming (aqua- and mariculture) accounted for about 16 million tonnes. So the world’s fisheries produced some 84 million tonnes per annum. About 77 million tonnes come from marine fisheries and the rest, some 7 million tonnes, from inland fisheries. To catch this quantity, there was a fishing fleet counting 3.5 million vessels and measuring about 30 million gross registered tonnes (FAO 1993, 1995). There are few hard data about the number of fishermen employed in the operation of this fleet. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO 1993) has estimated that they may be as many as 13 million. There is even less information about the number of workers employed in the processing and distribution of the catch. Conservatively estimated they may be 1 to 2 times the number of fishermen. This means that 25 to 40 million people may be directly employed in the fishing industry worldwide.

Asia is by far the largest fishing continent in the world, with close to half of the total annual fish harvest (FAO 1995). North and South America together (30%) come next, followed by Europe (15%). As fishing continents, Africa and Oceania are relatively insignificant, with combined harvest of about 5% of the annual global catch.

In 1993, the largest fishing nation in terms of harvesting volume was China, with about 10 million tonnes of marine catch, corresponding to about 12% of the global marine fish catch. Second and third place were taken by Peru and Japan, with about 10% of the global marine catch each. In 1993, 19 nations had a marine catch in excess of 1 million tonnes.

The world’s harvest of fish is distributed over a large number of species and fisheries. Very few fisheries have an annual yield in excess of 1 million tonnes. The largest ones in 1993 were the Peruvian anchovy fishery (8.3 million tonnes), the Alaska pollock fishery (4.6 million tonnes) and the Chilean horse mackerel fishery (3.3 million tonnes). Together these three fisheries account for about 1/5 of the world’s total marine harvest.

Evolution and Structure of the Fishing Industry

The combination of population growth and advances in fishing technology has led to a great expansion in fishing activity. Commencing centuries ago in Europe, this expansion has been particularly pronounced worldwide during the current century. According to FAO statistics (FAO 1992, 1995), total world catches have quadrupled since 1948, from under 20 million tonnes to the current level of about 80 million tonnes. This corresponds to almost 3% annual growth. However, during the last few years, the ocean harvest has stagnated at about 80 million tonnes annually. As the global fishing effort has continued to increase, this suggests that the exploitation of the world’s most important fish stocks is already at or in excess of the maximum sustainable yield. Hence, unless new fish stocks come under exploitation, the ocean fish catch cannot increase in the future.

The processing and marketing of the fish harvest have also expanded greatly. Assisted by improvements in transportation and conservation technology, and spurred by increased real personal incomes, ever increasing volumes of catch are processed, packaged and marketed as high-value food commodities. This trend is likely to continue at an even faster rate in the future. This means a substantially increased value added per unit of catch. However, it also represents a replacement of the traditional fish-processing and distribution activity by high-technology, industrial production methods. More seriously, this process (sometimes referred to as the globalization of fish markets) threatens to strip underdeveloped communities of their staple fish supply due to overbidding from the industrial world.

The world’s fisheries today are composed of two quite distinct sectors: artisanal fisheries and industrial fisheries. Most artisanal fisheries are a continuation of the traditional local fisheries that have changed very little over the centuries. Consequently, they are usually low technology, labour-intensive fisheries confined to near-shore or inshore fishing grounds (see the article “Case Study: Indigenous Divers”). The industrial fisheries, by contrast, are high technology and extremely capital intensive. The industrial fishing vessels are generally large and well equipped, and can range widely over the oceans.

With regard to vessel numbers and employment, the artisanal sector dominates the world’s fisheries. Almost 85% of the world’s fishing vessels and 75% of the fishermen are artisanal ones. In spite of this, due to its low technology and limited range, the artisanal fleet accounts for only a small fraction of the world’s catch of fish. Moreover, due to the low productivity of the artisanal fleet, the artisanal fishermen’s income is generally low and their working conditions poor. The industrial fishing sector is economically much more efficient. Although the industrial fleet only comprises 15% of the world’s fishing vessels and approximately 50% of the total tonnage of the world’s fishing fleet, it accounts for over 80% of the volume of marine catch in the world.

The increase in fishing during this century is mostly caused by an expansion of the industrial fisheries. The industrial fleet has increased the effectiveness of the harvesting activity in traditional fishing areas and expanded the geographical reach of the fisheries from relatively shallow inshore areas to almost all parts of the oceans where fish are to be found. By contrast, the artisanal fishery has remained relatively stagnant, although there has been technical progress in this part of the fishery as well.

Economic Importance

The current value of the global fish harvest at dockside is estimated to be about US$60 to 70 billion (FAO 1993, 1995). Although fish processing and distribution may be assumed to double or triple this amount, fishing is nevertheless a relatively minor industry from a global perspective, especially when compared to agriculture, the major food production industry of the world. For certain nations and regions, however, fishing is very important. This applies, for instance, to many communities bordering the North Atlantic and North Pacific. Moreover, in many communities of West Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, fishing is the population’s main source of animal protein and, consequently, is economically very important.

Fisheries Management

The global fishing effort has risen sharply during this century, especially after the end of the Second World War. As a result, many of the world’s most valuable fish stocks have been depleted to the point where increased fishing effort actually leads to a drop in the sustainable catch level. The FAO estimates that most of the world’s major fish stocks are either fully utilized or overfished in this sense (FAO 1995). As a result, the harvest from many of the world’s most important species has actually contracted, and, in spite of continuing advances in fishing technology and increases in the real price of fish, the economic returns from the fishing activity have declined.

Faced with diminishing fish stocks and declining profitability of the fishing industry, most of the world’s fishing nations have actively sought means to remedy the situation. These efforts have generally followed two routes: extensions of the national fisheries jurisdictions to 200 nautical miles and more, and an imposition of new fisheries management systems within the national fisheries jurisdictions.

Many different fisheries management methods have been employed for the purpose of improving the economics of fishing. Recognizing that the source of the fisheries problem is the common property nature of the fish stocks, the most advanced fisheries management systems seek to solve the problem by defining quasi-property rights in the fisheries. A common method is to set the total allowable catch for each species and then to allocate this total allowable catch to individual fishing companies in the form of individual catch quotas. These catch quotas constitute a property right in the fishery. Provided the quotas are tradable, the fishing industry finds it to its advantage to restrict fishing effort to the minimum needed to take the total allowable catch and, provided the quotas are also permanent, to adjust the size of the fishing fleet to the long-term sustainable yield of the fishery. This method of fisheries management (usually referred to as the individual transferable quota (ITQ) system) is rapidly expanding in the world today and seems likely to become the management norm for the future.

The expanding range of national fisheries jurisdictions and the property-rights-based management systems being implemented within them imply a substantial restructuring of fishing. The virtual enclosure of the world’s oceans by national fisheries jurisdictions, already well under way, will obviously all but eliminate distant water fishing. The property-rights-based fisheries management systems also represent increased incursion of market forces into fishing. Industrial fishing is economically more efficient than artisanal fishing. Moreover, the industrial fishing companies are in a better position to adjust to new fisheries management systems than artisanal fishermen. Hence, it seems that the current evolution of fisheries management poses yet another threat to the artisanal way of fishing. Given this and the need to curtail overall fishing effort, it seems inevitable that the level of employment in the world’s fisheries will fall drastically in the future.




Part I. The Body
Part II. Health Care
Part III. Management & Policy
Part IV. Tools and Approaches
Part V. Psychosocial and Organizational Factors
Part VI. General Hazards
Part VII. The Environment
Part VIII. Accidents and Safety Management
Part IX. Chemicals
Part X. Industries Based on Biological Resources
Part XI. Industries Based on Natural Resources
Part XII. Chemical Industries
Part XIII. Manufacturing Industries
Part XIV. Textile and Apparel Industries
Part XV. Transport Industries
Part XVI. Construction
Part XVII. Services and Trade
Part XVIII. Guides