'A blindness to risk': Board calls for mandatory life-jackets for fishermen
MONCTON, N.B. -- Before sunrise on June 16, 2016, three bleary-eyed lobster fishermen boarded a small fishing boat in northern New Brunswick and set out on Chaleur Bay.
What would unfold in the early morning hours on that fateful day was detailed in a Transportation Safety Board report Wednesday that once again underscored the danger fishermen face -- and the agency's repeated calls for mandatory life-jackets aboard commercial fishing vessels.
For three days, the seven-metre fishing boat, known only as C19496NB, had remained tied up at dock due to a fierce storm that had churned up rough seas and strong winds.
As the end of the spring lobster season approached, the fishermen were eager to check their 300 traps.
Under darkness, with the beam of a handheld searchlight, they found a buoy marking the first lobster trap trawl. The crew hauled up the three traps, removed the catch, rebaited and reset the traps and made their way to the second buoy.
But the fishermen ran into trouble. While the traps were being hauled, a line became entangled in another fisherman's gear. The strain pulled the rear starboard side of the vessel down, and two waves broke over the deck, funnelling water into the boat.
As the men were about to release the line, another wave broke over the deck, flipping the boat and throwing all three fishermen into the cold water hovering just above 12 degrees.
None wore life-jackets, and two of the three men died.
"They were 240 metres offshore. There is a possibility that if they had flotation (devices) they may have been able to get to shore," Transportation Safety Board member Joseph Hincke said in an interview Wednesday.
To make matters worse, the fishermen likely didn't know how to swim.
"I know one of them couldn't swim, I know that for a fact," said Wells Chapman, chief of the New Bandon-Salmon Beach Volunteer Fire Department and one of the first on the scene. "The other gentleman, I'm not sure, but I'd put money on it that he couldn't swim either."
One of the fishermen, a 47-year-old deckhand from Salmon Beach, kicked off his steel-toed rubber boots and managed to climb on the vessel's upturned hull. There he waited, straddling the keel of the upside-down boat, yelling for help.
The senior deckhand surfaced a couple of metres away. He called out for help, but soon went silent. The captain surfaced near the vessel, unresponsive and drifting.
About half an hour later, shortly after 5 a.m., another lobster vessel, the Marie Eliser 1, spotted the capsized vessel.
"It was still dark. The fishermen thought it was a dead whale," Chapman said. "It turtled, was what we called it. The bottom of the boat was on the surface."
The crew of the Marie Eliser 1 helped the shivering deckhand on board, then recovered the bodies of the two fishermen, a 45-year-old Bathurst man and a 67-year-old man from Salmon Beach.
Following an investigation, the Transportation Safety Board repeated its recommendation that all fishermen should be required to wear life-jackets, noting that unless provincial governments and Transport Canada require personal flotation devices, commercial fishermen will remain more likely to die if they fall overboard.
New Brunswick Labour Minister Donald Arseneault said being a fisherman is a tough job and the province will work to make it safer.
"The first thing I've done is to mandate my senior staff to start discussions with proper stakeholders. We want to make sure this sector is a safe place to work," he said. "Being a fisherman is a tough job. It's a dangerous job and if there are things we can do to make the job safer so these fishermen can go back home to their loved ones every night, we have a responsibility to work towards that."
New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are the only provinces that don't include commercial fishing in occupational health and safety regulations.
Still, while most provinces outline guidelines for commercial fishermen under workplace safety rules, Quebec is the only province that enforces wearing of life-jackets.
After two fatal fishing accidents several years ago, Quebec overhauled its regulations and mandated that all lobster fishermen wear life-jackets while on deck.
The province sent letters to fishing captains informing them of the new rules and followed up with inspections aboard vessels to ensure compliance.
There have been no reported deaths of Quebec lobster fishermen at sea since the regulations were implemented.
An average of 10 commercial fishermen die each year in Canada, the board said.
Commercial fishermen have long complained that bulky life-jackets and PFDs restrict their movements and make it difficult to work with fishing gear.
Hincke said PFDs have evolved and come in a range of compact designs that can accommodate fishermen at work.
Yet many fishermen brush off the dangers they face on the water.
"It's kind of a blindness to the risk," Hincke said. "Many of them don't see their work as inherently dangerous."
While he said there is some movement within the fishing industry towards stronger safety measures, the changes aren't happening quickly enough.
"We feel it needs to be a requirement, so we're asking New Brunswick to mandate it."
The board issued a similar recommendation about PFDs last December when it released an investigation report into a similar accident in British Columbia.
"The TSB considers that the implementation of explicit requirements for fishermen to wear PFDs would significantly reduce the loss of life associated with going overboard," the most recent report said.