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Owners of fishing boats cut in length to join under 40' fleet without pre-approval face fines/jail

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

Transport Canada officials say the owners of fishing vessels that have undergone major modifications to cut the overall length to under 40 feet — without having engineering plans approved in advance by the department — could face fines of up to $1 million and/or 18 months in jail. The policy isn't new, but the enforcement is.

Described as a "floating bait box," this fishing boat on the Great Northern Peninsula was built 45 feet long, but was cut down to 39'11 to meet Fisheries and Oceans length restrictions.

The move by Transport Canada Marine Safety and Security underscores the unfairness and chaos that comes from having two maximum base lengths for inshore fishing vessels in Eastern Canada — 39'll in Newfoundland and Labrador, and 49'11 in the Maritimes.

SEA-NL takes the stand that DFO should set a standard base length for all inshore fishing vessels in Atlantic Canada.

In recent years, dozens of Newfoundland and Labrador inshore harvesters have purchased over 40-foot fishing vessels from the Maritimes, and had them modified (cut) to be used in this province's under 40 fleet.

The news from Transport Canada could lead to many of those vessels being ordered tied to the wharf if department inspectors had not signed off on the modifications in advance.

The tie-ups, inspections, and possible further modifications could also cost fishermen untold tens/hundreds of thousands of dollars, and force other harvesters to build new boats at a much higher cost.

In June 2018 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans carried out a study of fishing vessel length in Atlantic Canada — recommending a full review of DFO's NL policy, and consultation with enterprise owners.

The head of the committee at the time was Nova Scotia Liberal MP Bernadette Jordan, who went on to become federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

The review was never carried out.

Fishing vessels are being built wider than ever before like the Scotia Tradition in Branch on the Cape Shore that's 49-feet long by 26-feet wide.

In recent days, SEA-NL has been dealing with the case of a fisherman who purchased a 44-foot vessel, and went so far as to check in with Transport Canada before cutting her length down to under 39'.

The fisherman said he was told Transport Canada has no jurisdiction once a vessel falls under that length, and he went ahead with the modifications.

Since then, however, the vessel has been inspected and detained by a Transport Canada inspector after the owner failed to provide engineering drawings, a huge expense ($20,000-$30,000) that the owner-operator wasn't aware he needed.

While Fisheries and Oceans divides fleets by vessel length, Transport Canada’s jurisdiction deals with tonnage (15 tonnes is the threshold).

A department official said the requirement for engineering plans to be approved in advance of major modifications being carried out is not new.


“I believe some of the misunderstanding comes from the fact that vessel owners attempting to modify a greater than 15GT (gross tonnage) registered vessel to be less than 15GT, while still being registered as greater than 15GT, do not realize that they are still obligated to submit plans for approval, and have inspection oversight by a Marine Safety Inspector (MSI), until the modifications are complete such that it is re-registered to be less than 15GT.”

Vessel owners who have modifications done to their boats without Transport Canada’s knowledge are “obliged to notify the department.”

An enterprise owner found to be in contravention of the law faces a fine of up to $1 million, and/or 18 months in jail.

Said the official, “Our aim is to work with vessel owners with the goal of bringing the vessels into compliance and making them aware of their obligations under the regulations and the Act.”

Another Transport Canada official said assigning a tonnage threshold to fishing vessels has led to safety concerns regarding "the increasing breath and/or depth of many fishing vessels, and the modifications made to vessel bows with unconventional structures."

There's a school of thought (the FFAW's) regarding vessel length that "bigger wants more" and increasing length will increase the appetite for more quota, and force owner-operators to go to processors for financing — jeopardizing the owner-operator fleet separation policy.

But then that argument makes little sense when you consider that most commercial fisheries are no longer competitive, but based on individual quotas (IQs). There are exceptions, of course, like the caplin and mackerel fisheries.

As well, while DFO regulates vessel length — the department doesn't regulate vessel width — and vessels that were built 16-feet wide in the early 1990s are being built up to 28-feet wide today.

Ryan Cleary,


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