Commercial fishing

Between 2010 and 2014, 54 commercial fishermen lost their lives at sea around the UK and Ireland. Get the RNLI's advice on fishing safety - from choosing a lifejacket to updating your deck machinery and keeping your vessel stable.

Understand the risks and fish safely

Analysis of fatalities between 2010 and 2013 found that:

  • 59% were not wearing a lifejacket or Personal Floatation Device (PFD)
  • 59% were caused by unstable vessels leading to capsize, leaks and swamping
  • The majority of fatalities occurred on vessels that were less than 15m in length.

Seven simple checks for safe fishing

  • Wear a lifejacket
    Lifejackets and Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) save lives, but they’re useless unless worn. Put one on. See our lifejacket guidance (PDF).
  • Be aware of cold water shock
    Cold water kills. If you do enter the water, wearing a lifejacket will help you withstand cold water shock and prolong your survival long enough for you to be recovered.
  • Check pipework
    Before you set off, check all critical pipework aboard your vessel, including all water inlets and seacocks.
  • Is your boat stable?
    Leaks, overloading and the free surface effect of a loose catch or poorly stowed kit can all make a vessel unstable.
  • Assess your deck machinery
    Ensure your deck machinery is safe to use and that all crew are fully trained on how to use it.
  • Investigate bilge alarms
    Investigate every bilge alarm every time you go to sea.
  • Conduct regular emergency drills
    Practise what to do in an emergency regularly.

Keeping fishermen safe on the job

Here are ways we’re working to make fishermen more aware of the dangers they face and how to minimise the risks.

  • Personal Flotation Device (PFD) training
    Our dedicated Commercial Fishing Safety Team provide PFD training during port visits and we have seen a steady rise in fishermen wearing lifejackets while working on deck. Fishermen like Sam Cully who survived when his fishing boat sunk thanks to the PFD he was given just 2 weeks earlier.
  • Stability fishing safety campaign
    We have also seen great improvements in safety awareness through highlighting the dangers associated with unstable fishing vessels. During port visits, our Commercial Fishing Safety Team advise on stability and deck machinery issues and give general safety advice.

When heading out onto the water, you need to be able to call for help. Having the appropriate means to tell the coastguard exactly where you are is the quickest way to save your life. Here are some options:

Waterproof handheld Digital Selective calling (DSC) VHF radio

A waterproof DSC VHF allows you to send a distress message with your location direct to the coastguard with a single button push. You then follow this with a voice call on channel 16, which is broadcast to all VHF radios in the area.

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

A PLB can send a distress message to the coastguard from anywhere in the world, providing there is a clear view of the sky. The distress message and your location will be sent to the coastguard, who will launch a rescue service to your GPS position. You can also use a PLB anywhere on land, so they can be used as safety kit for other outdoor pursuits.


Some GSM or satellite trackers have an SOS function which allows you to call for help from a Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC). They will then pass on your distress message to the Maritime RCC who will task the appropriate rescue service for you. 

All trackers are different and costs, specifications and network availability vary.

Mobile phone

Always take a fully charged mobile phone with you and keep it stored in a waterproof pouch. If you get into difficulty, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard. You may also want to use the RYA Safe Trx (UK) or ISA SafeTrx (Ireland) apps to track and log your passage.  These apps will also alert your emergency contacts if you fail to return before your ETA.

Remember: Not all coastal areas have mobile phone signal, so you may need an alternative means of calling for help.

‘I’d never worn a lifejacket in 20 years of fishing’

Sam Cully’s fishing boat, Speed Bird, sunk rapidly in a Force 6 off Portavogie in September 2013.

He was in the water for 45 minutes before being rescued by RNLI lifeboats from Portaferry and Donaghadee, along with an Irish Coast Guard helicopter.

Fortunately Sam was supplied with a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) just 2 weeks earlier through a Fishing Industry Safety Group (FISG) initiative. Before that, he never used to wear one at sea.

Without his PFD, Sam may not have lived to tell the tale.

Don’t be a statistic

54 commercial Fishing fatalities in the UK and Ireland between 2010 and 2014

509 lifeboat launches to commercial fishing vessels in 2015

Commercial fishing safety: useful links and resources

  • Deck machinery
    A fisherman uses deck machinery on a trawler
    Safety advice
    Funding for safer vessels
  • Vessel stability
    Bridlington lifeboat crew rescue four fisherman from their sinking boat
    Safety advice
    Vessel stability
  • See guide
    TV presenter Ben Fogle in a man overboard exercise from a fishing vessel
    Safety advice
    Sea Safety: The Complete Guide
  • Fisherman wearing a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) while operating deck machinery
    Download PDF 4.43 KB
    Lifejacket guidance for commercial fishing
  • RNLI lifeguard checking the engine of a rescue watercraft
    Download PDF 71KB
    Checklist for inboard and outdrive engines
  • Looking back at the twin Yamaha outboard engines on a B class Atlantic 85 lifeboat while at sea
    Download PDF 74.1KB
    Checklist for outboard engines

Figures are taken from:

  • RNLI 2013 incident data.
  • The Marine Casualty Investigation Branch 2010-2014.
  • RNLI commissioned analysis of commercial fishing fatalities 2009-12.