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Letter to the Prime Minister: Governments must do more to keep fish harvesters safe

The following letter requesting a federal/provincial inquiry into fishing vessel safety, and search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador has been forwarded to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with a similar letter sent to Premier Andrew Furey.

Thursday, May 26th, 2022

The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister of Canada

House of Commons

Ottawa, ON

K1A 0A6

Dear Prime Minister,

As Executive Director of Seaward Enterprises Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (SEA-NL), a non-profit organization representing independent, owner-operator inshore fish harvesters in the province, I write to formally request a commission of inquiry into fishing vessel safety, and search and rescue in the province.

Further, SEA-NL requests that the inquiry be a joint, federal/provincial exercise, and a similar letter/request has been forwarded to Premier Andrew Furey. Such a commission of inquiry would have the power to subpoena witnesses, take evidence under oath, and request documents.

A report this month by the Transportation Safety Board into the May 2020 sinking of the fishing vessel Sarah Anne in Placentia Bay with the loss of four south coast fishermen highlighted that the same deficiencies reported by the board for decades are not being addressed.

The failure to address deficiencies, the report read, “continue to put at risk the lives of thousands of Canadian fish harvesters and the livelihoods of their families and communities.”

Indeed, commercial fishing safety has been on the TSB’s Watchlist since 2010, and between 2018 and 2020 there were 45 fish harvester fatalities on fishing vessels of all sizes and all types of occurrences — the highest fatality count in a three-year period in more than 20 years.

Those statistics are Canada-wide, but there are problems with fishing vessel safety, and search and rescue that are particular to Newfoundland and Labrador.

SEA-NL recommends that an inquiry into fishing vessel safety and search and rescue in the province investigate from four fronts — fisheries management, Transport Canada regulations, safety at sea, and search and rescue.

Management decisions by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in this province directly impact fishing vessel safety.

DFO officials have acknowledged in the past that management decisions such as weekly limits in the small-scale northern cod fishery may put pressure on harvesters to fish in dangerous conditions.

Trip limits in the snow crab fishery, and fishing schedules that tell inshore owner-operators when to fish, and how much to fish, also put harvesters in vulnerable positions. It would appear that fishery management regulations have taken precedence over safety.

In terms of Transport Canada regulations, the TSB report into the loss of the Sarah Anne also found that more than 4,000 small boats in the under 35’ fleet in this province are registered with DFO than with Transport Canada.

DFO and Transport Canada cannot even agree on how to measure a fishing boat.

As for safety at sea/prevention, the investigation into the sinking of the Sarah Anne found that the vessel was not equipped with a release mechanism to allow the inflatable life raft attached to the top of the wheelhouse to mechanically release when the vessel went under.

Owner-operators often find it unclear what’s a Transport Canada rule versus a recommendation.

There are systemic factors in fishing vessel safety in Canada — including the failure to use lifesaving equipment such as PFDs, and emergency signalling devises like EPERBS and regulatory oversight — that must be addressed.

Finally, a joint federal/provincial commission of inquiry would delve into search and rescue.

Owner-operators know when they fish off Labrador that the absence of aeronautical and marine search and rescue resources puts them in an extremely vulnerable circumstance where every second could be the difference between life or death.

Likewise, there’s more vulnerability at sea because of the protocols on stand-by posture for our dedicated search and rescue air resources — 30 minutes wheels-up during the day, and up to two hours during evenings, weekends, and holidays — where every second is also critical.

Commercial fishing is already one of the most dangerous occupations in the world without government bureaucracy — federal and provincial — increasing the risks.

Owner-operators often find themselves fishing in dangerous conditions. They should not be pressured into dangerous conditions. Governments must do more to keep them safe.

Why haven’t so many previous fishing vessel safety recommendations been acted on?

The rate of incidents and fatalities at sea is rising despite a steady decrease in the number of inshore harvesters and fishing enterprises as the industry continues to contract.

More vessels are sinking, and more harvesters are dying at sea. That’s the greatest indictment that there are some serious problems with vessel safety and research and rescue that must be addressed through a commission of inquiry.


Ryan Cleary,

Executive Director, SEA-NL

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