European fishermen need a safety net

At the first light of the Adriatic Sea, Captain Davide Sanulli and his crew start harvesting mussels off the coast of Emilia Romagna in Italy.

It’s already a tough start to the day to wake up so early, but things are about to get tougher for them. Mussels grow on long underwater ropes. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to remove them.

Backbreaking work

For Davide the Captain, it’s just another day of work. He never complains, “every job has its difficulties,” he explains.

Machines help fishermen, but their noise can be deafening. Mud often gets in their eyes and they also need to be careful of moving parts. The boat is indeed a noisy wobbly factory floor in the middle of the sea and it leaves little time to rest.

Davide tells us that in the past everything was done manually, so machines and technology made it easier for them. However, he points out that it also made “the work much more hectic.”

Fatigue and accidents

His crew wear protective gloves, thick aprons and rubber boots intentionally too large to be quickly expelled in the event of an accidental fall overboard. On a bridge covered with slippery mussels, falls are a major risk.

Fatigue is the number one reason they could slip and fall or hit their heads, Davide says.

Offshore fishing and aquaculture are very risky jobs. On moving trawlers, fishermen can fall overboard unnoticed and drown. Ships can hit obstacles and sink. In 2019 alone, at least 16 fishermen died in European waters and more than two hundred were seriously injured.

For 19-year-old Lorenzo, harvesting mussels is just a summer job. He says it pays well, but few young people are really interested in choosing this career. He tells us that this is partly because it is hard to be a fisherman, but also because in summer you have to go to bed early and get up early, “a sacrifice that few young people are ready to make”.

This means that fishing is mainly a job for middle-aged men whose women are often described as housewives, eagerly awaiting the safe return of the men.

In fact, women today play a key role in the administration of fishing enterprises, handling the processing and sale of the catch. They hardly ever go out to fish, but there are rare exceptions.

Hard work for women

Çiğdem Moçoşoğlu is a fisherwoman with two adult daughters. She works on a small fishing boat. She is the only fisherwoman in Cesenatico and all of Emilia Romagna. For her, it is not hard work for a man, except on stormy days when the boat can hit floating tree trunks. However, she does that for women “who also have to take care of the house and the children, this work is more than hard, it is the hardest”.

Regulations to improve conditions

Regulations on working conditions often ignore small vessels. There are more rules for large vessels that spend weeks and months at sea. Fishermen in Cesenatico say hard work on small boats can also affect your health.

There is a global discussion on how to make fishing safer. Part of the solution depends on stricter regulations. In Europe, this includes a number of EU directives and international conventions, such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 188 “Work in Fishing”, which has so far only been ratified by seven states. members of the EU.

Another tool is targeted funding. The EU supports training and certain modifications to vessels which improve safety without increasing catches. However, according to the regional administration, boat upgrades are rare as half the cost has to be paid by the owners themselves.

Funding of security measures

According to Vittorio Elio Manduca, head of the hunting and fishing services in Emilia-Romagna, they tried to encourage fishermen to improve their equipment through various meetings and promotional activities. However, he tells us that they have not been able to “convince many to invest in safety on board”.

Vittorio says the fishermen seem keen on training, “but will not make any material investments, and that is, unfortunately, a problem”.

Upgrades to older ships are expensive and limited by the lack of space on board. But new ships can be designed with better safety in mind.

Alberto Stefanini is a technical safety engineer. He inspects fishing boats and points out small improvements that can make a big difference, like covers for moving ropes, safety clasps for fasteners, height of guardrails and air conditioning. All of these things make working more comfortable and therefore safer.

Massimo Bellavista works with fishing cooperatives, trade unions and their European counterparts to improve working conditions on board local vessels. It does this with the help of regular technical inspections and safety training.

Safety first

For him, the main objective when fishermen go to sea is that they come back safe and sound. That is why it is extremely important to implement and follow the rules. “Italy is a little late in the process of ratifying Convention 188, but we are working on it, and fishermen must try to anticipate these changes, and not wait for stricter rules to become mandatory”, explains- he does.

Back in the Adriatic Sea, the four shellfish farmers on Davide’s boat spend seven hours at sea. They collect an average of two tonnes of mussels, a task that visibly tires them.

In the coming months, Davide plans to modernize all of its equipment to make work easier and safer. He has already requested a work package of 70,000 euros to do this, 50% of which will be financed by Europe.

On the way back to shore, the crew relax for a moment before arriving in port to unload the mussels and get the boat ready for another grueling day of fishing.

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