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SEA-NL calls for public inquiry into fishing vessel safety, search and rescue

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Friday, May 20th, 2022


Picture of the fishing vessel Sarah Anne from the Transportation Safety Board's report into the vessel's sinking in May 2020.



Seaward Enterprises Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (SEA-NL) is calling for a joint, federal/provincial commission of inquiry into fishing vessel safety, and search and rescue response in this province to investigate why incidents and deaths at sea are on the rise.


“There is no greater indictment of serious, systemic problems with fishing vessel safety and search and rescue than the rise in mariner deaths,” says Ryan Cleary, SEA-NL’s Executive Director.


“Fishing is already one of the most dangerous occupations in the world without lax government oversight increasing those risks.”


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.


“The Transportation Safety board has been reporting on commercial fishing deficiencies for the last three decades and it’s been on their watchlist for 12 years, and every year the same safety deficiencies aboard fishing vessels continue to put the lives of thousands of harvesters at risk,” says Merv Wiseman, a member of SEA-NL’s executive board, and advocate for vessel safety and search and rescue.

The Transportation Safety Board released an investigative report this week into the 2020 sinking of the fishing vessel Sarah Anne in Placentia Bay, which claimed the lives of four south coast fishermen.

The report found that the vessel hadn’t been inspected since its construction in 1980, 40 years before. The investigation also found that the boat had been operating outside its safe operating limits, which the skipper and crew had no way of knowing.

“The fact that more than 4,000 small boats from the under 35’ fleet are registered with Fisheries and Oceans than with Transport Canada screams that fishery management regulations have taken precedence over fishing safety,” said Wiseman. “The Government of Canada has lost its way in that regard.”

SEA-NL has warned that trip limits and fishing schedules in the ongoing snow crab fishery can pressure owner-operators to fish in dangerous conditions, and are an accident waiting to happen.

“Owner-operators often find themselves fishing in dangerous conditions,” said Wiseman. “They should never be pressured into those dangerous conditions.”

SEA-NL will make a formal written request to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Andrew Furey for a commission of inquiry with the power to subpoena witnesses, take evidence under oath, and request documents.

Between 2018 and 2020 there were 45 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.

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BELOW IS THE STATEMENT FROM SEA-NL'S MAY 20TH NEWS CONFERENCE


Good morning, and thank you for coming,

My name is Ryan Cleary, Executive Director of SEA-NL, a professional, non-profit association that serves as the distinct voice of licensed, inshore owner-operators.

I’m joined by Merv Wiseman, who serves on SEA-NL’s executive board. Merv is also well known in this province, and country, as an advocate for search and rescue, and fishing vessel safety.

Bruce Layman is also here. Bruce is an inshore licence holder from Carbonear, and is the Secretary-Treasurer of SEA-NL.

This past Wednesday, the Transportation Safety Board released the report of its investigation into the sinking of the Sarah Anne, and the loss of four fishermen from the south coast.

To begin, we offer our condolences to the families.

Skipper Eddie Norman, Scott Norman, Jody Norman, and Isaac Kettle.

The men were lost on May 25th, 2020 — almost two years ago to the day.

Again, our deepest condolences to the families.

The boat involved in the tragedy — the Sarah Anne — was built for near-shore lobster fishing in Nova Scotia in 1980.

The Sarah Ann sank in 2020 — 40 years later — while fishing for snow crab about 25 miles out to sea near the entrance to Placentia Bay.

But Transport Canada had no record of an inspection of the Sarah Anne during — or since — the vessel was built 40 years ago.

That’s shocking, and an inditement of Canada’s fishing vessel safety regime.

Could a Transport Canada inspection have pointed out potential stability problems with the Sarah Anne, and prevented this tragedy?

That question can never be answered.

What’s clear, is that in the absence of a formal stability assessment on the Sarah Anne, the skipper and crew made operating decisions without knowing the vessel’s actual safe operating limits.

In fact, the Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the Sarah Anne had been operating outside its stability limits.

The fact that more than 4,000 small boats from the under 35' fleet are registered with Fisheries and Oceans than with Transport Canada screams that fishery management regulations has taken precedence over fishing safety.

Fishing is already one of the most dangerous occupations in the world without government bureaucracy — federal and provincial — increasing the risks, which is what’s happening.

SEA-NL has warned in recent days that trip limits and fishing schedules in the snow crab fishery — telling boats when to fish, and how much to fish — are an accident waiting to happen.

Forcing boats to take more trips to sea — while under pressure to land quotas before the price drops, or soft shell shuts down a fishery — and with weather getting worse, and windier ... that is an also accident waiting to happen.

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.

To that end, SEA-NL is today calling for a joint, federal/provincial commission of inquiry into fishing vessel safety in Newfoundland and Labrador from four fronts — fisheries management, Transport Canada regulations, safety at sea, and search and rescue.

I now turn this over to Merv Wiseman with more on the specifics …


Thank you Ryan.

To expand on what Ryan has said, SEA-NL is calling for a joint, federal-provincial commission of inquiry with the power to subpoena witnesses, take evidence under oath, and request documents.

Commercial fishing vessel safety has been on the Transportation Safety Board watchlist for 12 years since 2010.

To quote the TSB report: "Every year, the same safety deficiencies on board fishing vessels continue to put at risk the lives of thousands of Canadian fish harvesters and the livelihoods of their families and communities.”

A commission of inquiry would investigate fishing vessel safety from four perspectives:

NO. 1: Federal and provincial fisheries management. Are fisheries management decisions impacting vessel safety?

For example, do management decisions like weekly limits in the cod fishery impact safety at sea?

DFO has acknowledged in the past that such management decisions may put pressure on harvesters to fish in dangerous conditions.

The TSB report into the loss of four fishermen from Shea Heights in 2016 said as much about weekly limits.

Trip limits in the snow crab fishery, and fishing schedules that tell 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.

NO. 2: Transport Canada regulations.

Four thousand more small boats in the under 35-foot fleet in this province are registered with DFO than Transport Canada.

Vessel registration is mandatory, but no one knows it.

In this province’s snow crab fishery alone, DFO has documented hundreds of annual vessel checks with dozens of charges and warnings issued for violations regarding fishing-related regulations …

But when it comes to vessel safety over the last 5 years — in all of Canada — Transport Canada has issued only one administrative monetary penalty for failure to register a vessel.

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

NO. 3: Safety at sea, and prevention.

The Sarah Anne was not equipped with a release mechanism to allow the inflatable life raft attached to the top of the wheelhouse to be mechanically released when the vessel went under.

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

Regardless, Transport Canada doesn’t carry out regular inspections.

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.

NO 4: 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 also means the difference between life or death.

What happens when the button is pushed for search and rescue in this province?

What can our inshore fleets depend on?

Is enough done to reduce the chances of the button being pushed in the first place?

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

The rate of incidents and fatalities at sea is actually increasing — despite a steady decrease in the number of inshore harvesters and fishing enterprises.

Between 2018 and 2020 there were 45 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.

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.

The final thing I will mention is that we’ve just been through the Burton Winters inquiry into ground search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The need for a maritime inquiry into fishing vessel safety and search and rescue is just as critical.

Thank you.


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