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Safety communications related to TSB investigation M20A0160: Fatal sinking of the fishing vessel Sarah Anne in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador in May 2020

The occurrence

On 25 May 2020 shortly after midnight, the fishing vessel Sarah Anne, with 4 people on board, departed St. Lawrence, Newfoundland and Labrador, to fish snow crab in Placentia Bay. The Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre in Placentia, Newfoundland and Labrador, received an overdue report at 7:45pm NT that evening. A search was launched using several vessels and aircraft. The bodies of 3 crew members were recovered the following day. The body of the 4th crew member was recovered from the shore on 06 June 2020. The vessel was not found.

Recommendation made on 18 May 2022

There were a number of contributing factors involved in the loss of life: no distress call was received, no life raft was available to the crew, personal flotation devices (PFDs) were not worn, the vessel was not monitored by a third party, the vessel was not equipped with an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), and the stability limits of the vessel were not known to the crew.

The investigation also revealed that thousands more commercial fishing vessels were registered with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in the Atlantic Region than were registered with TC. That is, DFO was issuing a license to harvest marine resources commercially without verification that the vessel was correctly registered with TC, the department responsible for surveillance of safety requirements.

Commercial vessels must be registered with TC, even those that are not inspected for certification.  Vessel registration with TC is not only a legislative requirement of the Canada Shipping Act, 2001, but also it gives TC the opportunity to provide safety oversight and guidance to vessel owners regarding their responsibility for compliance. In addition, up-to-date registration data mean accurate information is available to search and rescue authorities, and reliable data are available for safety regulators and other organizations in the marine safety system.

Harvesters are more likely to comply with regulatory requirements related to harvesting resources, partly because DFO upholds its mandate robustly through licence conditions and enforcement measures for non-compliance. In contrast, TC’s less robust enforcement regime means that there are no such direct incentives to register with TC, nor to keep registration information up-to-date. In addition, the investigation identified that communication with fish harvesters in regard to the requirement for registration with TC is inconsistent and not always well understood.

Internationally, the importance of current and accurate vessel registration with the safety regulator has also been recognized, and many countries link fishing vessel licenses to vessel registration and inspection. In Canada, the connection between safety considerations and the granting of fishing licenses has long been recognized, but has not been adequately addressed. Driven largely by initiatives  created by regional staff, efforts are underway within both TC and DFO to address the issue. Nationally, TC and DFO report that they are each changing their database structures to include the other department’s unique registration number. However, without any enforceable requirements, these initiatives remain an informal arrangement and are not a permanent solution. DFO can continue to issue licenses to harvest marine resources on vessels that do not have a current and accurate TC registration. Since DFO is a part of the Government of Canada, issuing a licence may give fish harvesters the impression that they have satisfied all government requirements before conducting commercial operations.

In many countries, including Canada, one solution to coordinating service delivery when an issue falls under the responsibility of one or more departments has been a “whole of government” or “horizontal government” approach. This approach was developed in response to situations where issues are interdependent, such as the safety of the fishing industry, and where the government’s objectives cannot be achieved unless 2 or more departments begin working together.  For the Canadian fishing industry, this means TC and DFO must work together to ensure that fish harvesters meet all requirements before they can operate commercially. Given that fish harvesters have more frequent contact with the Government of Canada through DFO, a key step in advancing commercial fishing safety will be using this relationship to promote regulatory compliance with TC safety requirements.

If fishing vessels are not registered in a TC register, and there are no mechanisms in place to ensure the accuracy of the register information, there is a risk that fish harvesters will not know about, understand, or adhere to regulations intended to increase fishing safety. Given that current and accurate TC registration is the first step in safety oversight of commercial fishing vessels, the Board therefore recommends that:

the Department of Fisheries and Oceans require that any Canadian vessel that is used to commercially harvest marine resources have a current and accurate Transport Canada registration.
TSB Recommendation M22-01