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Fishing safety must be a shared responsibility

By Glenn Budden
Transportation Safety Board of Canada

(This article original appeared in the February 2015 issue of Western Mariner magazine.)

Early on the morning of May 18, 2013, the small lobster-fishing vessel Marie J was returning to its home berth of McEachern's Point Harbour, New Brunswick. An initial foray to the Gulf of St. Lawrence had been cut short by bad weather, and as the vesseltransited the narrow channel marking the return passage into Tabusintac Bay, it grounded on a nearby unmarked sandbar. Pounded by 3m to 4m waves driven by northeast winds of 25 knots, the vessel was soon pushed off the sandbar and sank.

Although the master aboard another vessel in the area contacted the 9-1-1 centre, all three persons aboard the Marie J drowned—including two who were at one point seen standing on the starboard side bulwark and holding on to the wheelhouse, neither wearing a Personal Floatation Device (PFD).Note de bas de page 1

Regardless of whether they live in Atlantic Canada or British Columbia, fishermen know that theirs is not a profession without risks. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) knows it, too. In 2010, we put the issue of Fishing Vessel Safety on our safety Watchlist, which identifies the greatest risk to Canada's transportation system. Then, in 2012, we published a reportNote de bas de page 2 that identified 10 recurrent fishing-safety issues—half of which were present to some degree in the tragedy of the Marie J:

Perhaps the key finding of the TSB's 2012 report on fishing safety, however, was to point out the complex interdependence of these issues, with each affecting the others in different ways. The same holds true for any solutions. Trying to fix each issue on its own simply doesn't work. They need to be addressed together.

Last November, when releasing its investigation report into the Marie J, the TSB drew specific attention to this idea, but acknowledged that solutions vary from province to province. In Nova Scotia, for example, that province's Fisheries Safety Association, along with the Nova Scotia Fisheries Sector Council, works in partnership with the fishing community to further safety, a coordinated effort that is helping fishermen realize safety is a vital part of fishing operations. By comparison, initiatives in New Brunswick are limited, since WorksafeNB lacks the legislation to enforce matters related to occupational health and safety on fishing vessels. Nor, unfortunately, are there provincial-level fishing safety organizations working to promote safe work practices among fishermen.

In British Columbia, meanwhile, the Fish Safe Advisory Committee, which is open to all members of the fishing community, has produced or helped to develop several programs and initiatives aimed at: developing practical PFDs for fishermen, educating all members of the community about fishing in BC, improving stability education, and providing fishermen with safety manuals, familiarization and drill training. As well, WorksafeBC is proactive in fishing vessel safety and participates fully in the provincial initiatives, develops, implements and enforces fishing-specific regulations.

That's a lot of good work that's being done across this country. But there's still a long way to go. Roughly one fisherman per month still dies in fishing-related activities, and that number hasn't changed much over the past five years. Many others still don't wear their PFDs, and short fishing seasons—regardless of province or fishery— mean some fishermen continue to feel pressured to venture out in bad weather.

Hopefully, tragedies like the Marie J will spur people to action, because there needs to be concerted and coordinated action by federal and provincial authorities and by leaders in the fishing community. Until that happens, though, the TSB will continue to push for change—by investigating accidents, making recommendations, and communicating what we learn—so that more and more fishermen make it safely home to port.