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Fishing groups have called on the government to pause new medical regulations for crews and carry out a review

Fishing groups have urged a pause in the rollout of “poorly thought-through” government medical regulations that ban pregnant fishers from boats.

The Maritime & Coastguard Agency medical regulations – based on International Labour Organisation guidelines on medical fitness at sea – have been gradually applied to UK vessels since 2018, and were imposed on the smaller inshore fleet (consisting of under 10 metre-long boats) at the end of November.

They require crews to have a medical certification to man a vessel at sea, prompting concerns, first reported by The Grocer last month, that thousands of fishermen and women could be forced out of their jobs due to uncertainty over the scope of the rules.

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations said the standard fishers were required to demonstrate to secure a certificate, “exceeds that applied to the large majority of other professions”.

Despite concessions made by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, the federation said hundreds of people continued to live under the threat of having the “livelihood they have pursued safely for decades taken away”.

Following complaints from the sector, the MCA has relaxed standards on diabetes, eyesight and BMI, but without review or consultation. 

“This will help some of those impacted,” said NFFO CEO Mike Cohen. “But it is far too little and comes far too late.” 

And the rules continue to apply to pregnant fishers and those with more trivial conditions such as sinusitis.

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Given the confusion around the rules, made worse by the MCA’s concessions for some conditions, “the whole foundation of the regulations is now fundamentally undermined” and the government was “no longer able to make their previous claim these rules are essential for safety”, Cohen claimed.

“What’s left makes no one safer and is harming the mental health of fishers,” he said.

Cohen is calling on ministers to now “pause the regulations and order a comprehensive review”.

The NFFO has suggested an exemption from certification, provided crews work on a vessel less than 24m in length that does not stay at sea for more than 72 hours.

It argues this would solve the problems associated with the regulations and provide parity with other nations, including Ireland which exempts its small boat fishers. 

Since the rules came into place, several hundred fishers have failed certification assessments and subsequently appealed the decision, said the NFFO, citing the MCA’s own data.

Of those whose appeals have been reviewed around a third had been given permission to work only in restricted circumstances, which the NFFO argued was “often indistinguishable from a ban on future work”, as The Grocer has previously reported. 

The federation said the MCA has not provided any evidence that those with medical conditions that would lead to a failure of the test were a significant risk at sea and added that “the negative impacts of the regulations on fishers’ health and livelihoods far outweigh any theoretical benefits that might accrue”.

The current rules continue to apply to pregnant fishers and some trivial conditions including a history of sinusitis which the NFFO has continued to challenge.

The MCA was approached for comment.