Fishing safety: A top priority for the TSB

By Wendy A. Tadros

(This article was published in the November 2012 issue of the Western Mariner magazine.)

On May 3, 2011, the small fishing vessel Silver Angel was heading for port just south of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia. Shortly before dawn, after a long night's watch, one of the two crew members fell overboard while hauling in the vessel's starboard paravane stabilizer. Despite his shouts for help and the captain's best efforts to retrieve him, within minutes he had vanished into the fog.

Officially, the event was recorded in the TSB database as the 143rd fishing-related death since 2000. But for those involved—the crew's families and loved ones—it will always be something else: a tragedy.

At the Transportation Safety Board, we know that every accident is a unique combination of causes and contributing factors, be they human, environmental, organizational, or mechanical. But what happened that day—and what we pointed out again this summer when we released our investigation report into the Silver Angel—was something all too familiar to Canadian fishermen.

Risks are an inherent part of fishing. Fishermen know this—they've been doing it for generations. But today, Canada continues to lose about one fisherman a month, month after month, year after year. That is unacceptable. It is why, back in 2010, the TSB highlighted the issue of fishing safety on our inaugural safety Watchlist—and it's why we kept it on the Watchlist when it was time for an update in 2012. But pointing out that this was one of the issues posing the greatest risk to Canada's transportation system was only a starting point. We went further this summer when we published a more intensive study of Canadian fishing safety, a Safety Issues Investigation aimed at finding out why the same kinds of accidents keep happening, and what can be done to bring the accident rate down.

Not only did we identify 10 key safety issues, we also uncovered a complex relationship in which each issue influenced the others in different ways. For example, falling overboard—the second leading cause of death among fishermen—isn't simply the result of a careless work practice. It's related to safety equipment, such as harnesses or Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) not worn because they may be seen as cumbersome, uncomfortable or inconvenient. Falling overboard can also be related to training, fatigue, and crewing levels, which are in turn subject to the economic pressures of market forces and the need to make a living.

What this tells us is that addressing safety issues one by one just doesn't work. Similarly, when it comes to solutions, we concluded that no single group or government can fully address all the challenges of such a complex environment. The key is cooperation. Federal and provincial governments need to work with leaders in the fishing community to establish regional governance structures aimed at ensuring that fishermen can and will work safely.

In some areas of the country, this is already being done. Organizations such as British Columbia's Fish SAFE, Quebec's Standing Committee on Fishing Vessel Safety, Nova Scotia's Fishery Safety Association, and the proposed Newfoundland and Labrador Fish Harvesters Safety Association are all at the forefront of new collaborative efforts. By working with vessel owners and operators, fishing associations, processors, government, trainers, and unions, these groups are taking a comprehensive look at the problems. They're helping to identify risky procedures, and finding safer ways to get the job done.

All of these initiatives have evolved independently, and they're definitely a great start, but they're not enough on their own—nor have they yet developed in all fishing regions. We need to take the progress that's been made and boost it, spreading it throughout the country. By working together, we can develop and instill a safety culture within the entire fishing community, one where safe work practices are commonplace and challenges are addressed by everyone.

In the meantime, the TSB will continue its push for safety. In addition to our investigation reports, as well as the Watchlist and this summer's Safety Issues Investigation, we recently put together a short video and published an action booklet filled with tips and information to help fishermen operate safely. Then we made sure it was distributed to fishermen's associations across the country. Our goal? A copy on every vessel's galley table. Maybe that's ambitious, but with any luck it will help place the emphasis on what should be everyone's top priority: making sure all fishermen make it safely back to port.

The TSB is an independent agency that investigates marine, pipeline, railway and aviation transportation occurrences. Its sole aim is the advancement of transportation safety. It is not the function of the Board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability.