A SAFETY warning has been issued to the fishing industry about the mandatory wearing of lifejackets as concerns grow about deaths caused by not wearing them - despite moves to supply them free to Scottish boats.

New figures show that six of the 12 fishermen who have died at sea in 2018 and 2019 were not wearing lifejackets while commercial fishing was being judged as Britain's most dangerous occupation.

Last year, three fishermen of the six fishermen who died in 2019, were in the water and none were using buoyancy aids.

The vast majority of the deaths over the past two years have occurred in Scottish waters.

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The Marine Accident Investigation Branch issued the flyer after the latest incident in which a boat skipper drowned in a Highlands river without a buoyancy aid.

William Sutherland, 51, died in September last year when the Anna-Marie II capsized as it entered the mouth of the of Brora river in the Highlands.

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Last year it was decided to end a scheme to supply PFDs (personal floating devices) to fishermen on Scottish-registered boats, with the intention of increasing the usage of a flotation garment while working on the open deck.

The MAIB has said deaths in the water from those not wearing PFD was of "great concern" and said that "embedding behavioural change" could half the fatality rate in the fishing industry.

It comes a year after the end of a scheme to supply PFDs to fishermen on Scottish-registered boats, with the intention of increasing the usage of a flotation garment while working on the open deck.

Some 3,500 personal flotation devices (PFDs) were supplied to fishermen during the four-year scheme run by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation but funded by the Scottish Government, European Fisheries Fund (EFF), the Scottish Fishermen’s Trust (SFT) and the UK Fisheries Offshore Oil and Gas Legacy Trust Fund (FLTC).

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency issued an M Notice at the end of 2018 that stressed the increased risk of drowning if a PFD is not worn.

It said: “The MCA requires that, unless measures are in place which eliminate the risk of fishermen falling overboard, all fishermen must be provided with, and must wear, PFDs or safety harnesses. The measures preventing man-overboard must be documented in a written risk assessment.”

Despite a safety campaign by the Fishing Industry Safety Group and the distribution of approximately 8,000 free PFDs, "there is evidence that on many vessels, the risk of man-overboard has not been eliminated, and harnesses and PFDs are still not being worn", said the MCA at the time.

The MAIB database of marine accidents between 2000 and 2017 recorded 153 fatal drowning accidents from UK-registered fishing vessels. Of these, 104 of the fatalities were not wearing PFDs, and 20 were wearing them. In the remaining 29 cases, it was unknown whether PFDs were worn at the time of the accident.

In their new flyer to the fishing industry, the MAIB said: "In open fishing vessels the risk of capsize and inverting, particularly in steep waves, is higher compared with decked vessels.

"Therefore, it is important that fishermen reduce the risk of broaching and capsize by conducting a thorough assessment to ensure they are prepared if acapsize occurs.

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Anna-Marie II's upturned hull

"The MCA introduced the mandatory wearing of PFDs because of the significant number of fishermen who have drowned following fishing vessel accidents. The potential benefits of wearing a PFD far outweigh the risks of secondary issues, such as entrapment."

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It said wearing a lifejacket will help ensure fishermen "are kept afloat with your face clear of the water, allowing you to breathe, even when unconscious".

It added: "The load on your heart is reduced as you won’t have to struggle to keep afloat and swim. You are easier to spot in the water and it is easier to pull you out of the water."

The MAIB's latest investigation, found that William Sutherland struck his head, which may have affected his ability to swim and that a lifejacket would have helped keep his head out of the water.

Mr Sutherland had reportedly worn one when working single-handed.

Anna-Marie II was returning from its fishing grounds on 23 September when it was capsized in "unusually high waves".

The skipper and crewman both end up in the water. Neither was wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). The crewman managed to swim ashore.

Mr Sutherland was flown to hospital, but could not be saved.

An investigation report said that the crewman understood there were two PFDs on board, although these were not found following the accident, "having probably been lost during the capsize and inversion".

The MAIB said: " It was understood that the skipper had worn an infatable lifejacket in the past, when he fshed alone. However, he had stopped wearing it due to concerns that it would hamper his ability to cut himself free if he fell overboard and became trapped in fshing gear, or would lead to him becoming trapped if his vessel capsized.

It added: "Had the skipper been wearing a lifejacket it would have helped keep his head out of the water and might have increased his likelihood of survival."

It added: "The skipper's extensive knowledge of the local conditions did not prevent him being caught out by the size of the waves, which were hard to judge from out at sea and not evident in any forecasts."

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Among those who died in the water in 2019 who were not wearing lifejackets was creel fisherman Tony Masson, 67, who fell from from his vessel Sea Mist in March.

His son had seen the boat circling and raised the alarm.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch concluded that Mr Masson had become entangled in rope and was then dragged overboard.

The MAIB said he was working alone on deck without a personal flotation device (PFD) and there were no barriers in place to separate him from his fishing gear.

The investigation concluded that he drowned either because he was dragged underwater by the weight of the creels and was unable to free himself in time to reach the surface, or because he was unable to keep himself afloat after releasing his foot from his boot.

In its investigation report in November, it concluded that a flotation device would have increased his chances of survival. One was found hanging up in the wheelhouse.

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MAIB investigation report highlights how the skipper's personal flotation device and knife stowage on deck

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch said that a “physical barrier” between Mr Masson and his rope “would probably have prevented this accident”. The MAIB said: “The skipper was working alone on deck without a life jacket or personal locator beacon.

The investigators in the Anna-Marie II tragedy set out their views on the use of life jackets.

"The MCA introduced the mandatory wearing of PFDs because of the significant number of fishermen who have drowned following fishing vessel accidents. The potential benefits, specifically, of wearing an infatable lifejacket far outweigh the risks of secondary issues, such as entrapment," they said.

"This is because they enable survival during the initial stages of cold water shock and then ensure a casualty’s head is kept clear of the water, even if unconscious, thus minimising the risk of drowning.

"In this case the skipper suffered a blow to the head during the capsize, which might have affected his ability to swim, so a lifejacket would have kept his head above water and perhaps prevented him from drowning. While the crewman managed to make his way to shore after a difficult swim and without a PFD, he was very fortunate to have survived in the cold water and large waves he encountered."