Fisherman dies when safety rope snaps

Lookout! Issue 36, December 2016

The death of a crew member on a 63-metre fishing trawler could have been prevented if established procedures regarding rope replacement and other safety measures were followed by the captain and bosun.
Fishing vessel.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The purse seine type fishing vessel where the safety rope snapped.

A 27-year-old man died when a safety rope connected to a net full of tuna broke and snapped back, killing him instantly.

The fishing company pleaded guilty to a charge laid by Maritime NZ under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees while at work. The company was fined $73,520 and ordered to pay $21,000 in reparations to the deceased crew member’s family.

The purse seine net involved in this incident was approximately two kilometres long and 200 metres deep.

A loud “pop” was heard when the 50mm double braided safety rope snapped.

The crew had been hauling in a load of tuna in the western Pacific Ocean when the strop (loop) attached to one end of the net failed and the full weight of the net ended up on a safety rope.

A crew member leapt over the side of the vessel into the ocean to attach another line to the net and, once he was back on deck, the captain made the order to resume winching the net in. The new line slipped, transferring more pressure on to the safety rope.

A loud “pop” was heard when the 50mm double braided safety rope snapped.

The line had previously broken about three weeks before, but instead of replacing the eye splice connecting it to the net, the bosun tied a bowline in the rope. This was contrary to the company’s documented safety procedures. Knots can reduce the breaking strain on a rope to below 50 percent.

The broken rope.
The broken 50mm double braided safety rope.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

Fishing continued on that occasion with the knotted rope, even though it could easily have been replaced with a spare line ready for use in the bosun’s office.

When the safety rope broke the second time it parted at the bowline knot, indicating that the knot had weakened the rope.

At the time of the fatal accident, the splice in the strop had slowly come undone. For a splice to come undone in such a manner, it indicates the splice was substandard. The judge noted at sentencing that incorrect splicing of the safety strop was among the immediate causes of the crew member’s death. The bosun had previously been dismissive towards a senior crew member who had questioned the quality of the splicing.

Failure to replace the safety rope after it first broke was also ruled as a contributing factor, along with the captain’s order that the crew continue winching during the second incident, despite there being too much pressure on the knotted safety rope.

The company has since introduced a rope register, and issued safety notices to its whole fleet about the hazards of bowlines, snapbacks and breaking loads on ropes.


  • This incident highlights what should be done to manage the risks when using nets and rope, in deep sea fishing.
  • Safety procedures on trawlers are documented for the captain and crew to follow for the safety of all on board. In this case, the captain and bosun failed to follow the agreed safety procedures.
  • Fishing operations should have been halted when the safety strop failed, to allow a risk assessment to be completed. Winching should not have resumed until conditions were safe – even if this meant losing fish from the net.
  • The reason for the breakage must be investigated, so improvements to the rigging can be made if necessary to prevent further equipment failure.
  • A peer review system should be in place for work such as splicing strops. This would reduce the likelihood of substandard strops being prepared and used during fishing operations.
  • In this incident, the full weight of the haul went on to the knotted safety line when the strop parted. The safety line should not have been knotted when it broke three weeks previously.
  • Knots weaken the strength of the rope and can reduce the breaking strain by more than 50 percent. This is one of the reasons safety ropes need to be replaced if they break.
  • A rope register assists crew in following processes for rope and line maintenance.
  • Training needs to be undertaken for rope and line maintenance, along with daily or regular health and safety briefings.
  • A system to minimise the risks to crew in the snap-back zone should be part of a fishing vessel’s safety plan. The zones could be marked on the deck so that crew can avoid standing inside or close to these danger areas.
  • If the position of the winch used for the safety line was closer to the port side of the vessel it would reduce the size of the snap-back zone.
  • Emergency procedures need to be documented and reinforced by regular drills – including how to manage rigging failures.

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