fishing boat crews blog

A view from the FOC'SLE #4: Fishing boat crews

BLOG | August 2022

A warm welcome back to the Foc’sle, I hope you have brought your oilskins with you as it looks like some spray will be coming across the deck tonight!

We were going to delve into the subject of fishing boat crews in this session, but before we get into crewing matters, it may be a good idea to draw a picture of the vessels we are referring to.

At the smallest end are artisanal fishers, and these could use anything from a dugout canoe to a 25m wooden or GRP diesel-powered boat. These are often family-owned and family-run and have a ‘home port’ where they typically land their catch.

The crew on board the artisanal boats are mainly family or relatives of the owner. Sometimes, local lads are recruited to help out if the ‘family’ is not big enough.

There are rarely any issues regarding employment conditions or wages in these boats, for obvious reasons!

Crew safety is generally atrocious, and your Lookout Man has been told by many owners that the skipper and the crew refuse to carry life rafts on the boat because that will bring bad luck. Likewise, crew training is very basic, however so is the equipment on board, so by and large, everything goes reasonably well.

At the upper end of the scale are the very modern vessels that range in size:

From small

small fishing boat

to huge.

huge fishing boat

At the other end of the complexity scale come modern boats, of all sizes. These are highly automated, and it is not uncommon for the crew to be able to complete an entire voyage without going on the open deck. Not to say they don’t work hard, they do work very hard and for very long hours, and they get handsomely paid for it. Crews tend to be small and well qualified, and employment issues seldom arise.

In the middle come the “industrialised” boats, and in particular those fishing in distant water.

These may stay at sea for more than a year, with catches collected and supplies delivered by refrigerated cargo ships.

These boats typically need quite large crews, depending upon fishing methods. Few juniors are qualified, and it is not uncommon for a substantial number of ‘hands’ to be ‘first trippers’ without any previous seagoing experience.

Boats are commonly owned by corporations, with a Skipper, Fishing Master, and Chief Engineer hailing from near the owner’s office. There are few issues with these seniors, as owners depend on them for a successful outcome for the enterprise. These seniors are generally highly motivated, occasionally excessively so.

huge fishing boat

Now we come to the juniors.

In certain Asian countries, Government supervision of crew employment is almost totally lacking. Admittedly there have, in the past few years, been some major improvements in Government supervision in some very active ‘fishing countries’, but there are still many instances uncovered every year where workers are recruited by agents in non-traditional countries and shipped off to boats waiting to go to sea as soon as they can get a crew.

fishing boat crew

Conditions on board are often abysmal, with unsanitary accommodation, limited fresh water, poor food, and grossly excessive working times. Pay is withheld by the Skipper until he decides a crew member can go home, which may be several years after he has joined. Physical beatings are commonplace.

Various UN agencies have described this as modern-day slavery, which in fact it is.

As may be expected under such conditions, safety standards are at rock bottom, and boat maintenance is extremely basic, or held over until, one day, the boat calls in a port where maintenance can be carried out. Come what may, short-term profit rules the waves here.

Some Asian littoral states are carrying out at-sea inspections of these industrialised boats, but this can only be done within that state’s economic zone and will in principle be checking permits, etc. The deep ocean boats are seldom under any direct scrutiny at all, and this is perhaps one reason why they prefer to remain at sea for years at a time. Certainly not a desirable state of affairs, and progress is certainly not uniform.

So can any of us reading this make any difference? Yes, I believe we can; perhaps each of us should look in the mirror every morning and ponder how our daily decisions could “make a difference”. Much will depend on who you are and what your role is, but collectively I hope we can indeed make a difference!

Next month your Lookout Man will crank up his crystal ball and see what it shows concerning the future of the fishing industry!


The Lookout Man

capt jon elliot coastal marine

About The Lookout Man

Captain Jon Elliott

Capt. Jon began his seafaring career in 1960.  He spent 11 Years in Taiwan running US Lines and then moved to Singapore in 1980 where he eventually joined Matthews Daniel in Singapore in 1989 and becoming Far East Managing Director. Capt. Jon started his own company Elliott Associates Pte Ltd after his retirement to bring an enhanced level of loss prevention to the Asian Marine industry. Capt. Jon is a consultant to Coastal Marine Asia Holdings Limited in our Loss Prevention Division providing technical guidance to our underwriters, whilst arranging crew and management loss prevention training for some of our insureds.

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