New code for UK's most dangerous job

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THE DEATH of 29 fishermen at sea last year - the highest toll in four years - has prompted the Government to introduce a new safety code for small fishing boats.

Vessels up to 12 metres (40ft) in length will be subject to regular inspections and their safety standards extended.

Until now small vessels have had a different safety regime from that of larger fishing craft, but commercial pressures have led to fishermen in boats of all sizes taking greater risks.

However, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, announcing the code yesterday, stressed that fishermen must behave more responsibly if there is to be any reduction in the "simply unacceptable" toll at sea.

While stepping up safety inspections and improving training, the Government also expected fishermen's attitudes to change, he said.

"We know you have got a difficult climate to work in and there are commercial pressures, but life is very important. It's not just fish you are getting, it's deaths that are being caused in catching them and I think that we don't have to pay that price." A consultation exercise with fishing communities is under way to find "acceptable" ways of reducing the number of fatalities, he added.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch's (MAIB) annual report published yesterday showed that, with 77 fatalities for every 100,000 fishermen, the fishing industry is Britain's most dangerous occupation by far.

The next highest category, mining and quarrying, registers 23.2 deaths per 100,000 workers.

The report blamed the rising death toll among fishermen, which is all the more serious because of the sharp reduction in the size of the British fishing fleet in recent years, on the pressures of a contracting industry.

Fishing vessels of all sizes are travelling farther in search of a catch, it said.

Yesterday's announcement followed attempts this month to solve the mystery of the Gaul, the Hull-registered trawler that sank off the Norwegian coast in 1974 with the loss of 36 lives.

Relatives of the dead men have long suspected that the vessel may have been sunk while on a spying mission for British intelligence to monitor the movements of the Soviet fleet.

A government survey vessel was sent to the wreck some 20 miles off the port of Tromso to gather vital evidence about the sinking.

A new report on the tragedy is expected later this year, although Mr Prescott warned that such exhaustive surveys might not always be possible due to the high cost of the techniques.

"However, we are considering ways of making the equipment available on a more regular and affordable basis to the MAIB," he said.