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Deck modification led to fatal capsizing of First Nation fishing vessel: TSB report

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HALIFAX -

The Transportation Safety Board once again linked lax regulation of vessel stability to fishing deaths off Nova Scotia in a report released Wednesday.

The agency said the addition of a removable deck "compromised" the safety of the Mi'kmaq fishing vessel Tyhawk, leading to its capsize on April 3, 2021. The report says the modified lobster boat -- which was fishing for snow crab off western Cape Breton -- had accumulated ice and taken on water in seas with waves of one to two metres and winds of about 35 to 45 kilometres per hour.

Craig Sock, the captain of the 13.6-metre vessel, was swept off the overturned hull and his body was never found. Four crew members were brought ashore after being rescued by another fishing boat but one of them -- 39-year-old Seth Monahan -- died in hospital after being in the frigid waters without a life-jacket or survival suit.

"How many more fish harvesters have to die before changes are made," Kathy Fox, the safety board chair, asked during a news conference to release the report in Halifax.

Fox reminded reporters that the board has an unfulfilled recommendation, first made in 2015, that Transport Canada require all small fishing vessels to undergo stability assessments. The assessments -- common in larger vessels -- would require a naval architect to determine a boat's operating limits and provide crews with guidelines for safely loading their catch and gear.

Karie Allen, the lead investigator, said that over the past decade the TSB has investigated 19 similar cases that resulted in 34 deaths. In Nova Scotia, the lack of a stability assessment was noted by the board as a key factor in the Dec. 15, 2020 capsizing of the Chief William Saulis, which claimed six lives off the province's southwestern shore.

The board issued a similar warning about stability assessments earlier this month in New Brunswick after two lobster fishermen died on May 6 after falling off the Tracy Dawn.

In the case of the Tyhawk, the report noted that shortly after it was built as a lobster boat in 2001, a removable deck was added. Allen said this 1.4-metre addition allowed for more storage of crab on the permanent deck, but also meant that the boat would rock more deeply in rough seas.

"The Tyhawk's stability was compromised in part by the addition of a removable deck, which had not been evaluated for its impact on the vessel's stability," the report says.

Since 2017, small fishing vessels that have had a "major" modification that is "likely to adversely affect their stability," have been required to have a stability assessment. However, the board's report says the Tyhawk's owner didn't seem to realize the study was necessary.

Transport inspectors looked at the vessel in 2013 and 2014 -- before the new regulations -- and determined the added deck called for a stability assessment, but nothing happened. In 2015, the Tyhawk's captain noted the removable deck in a Transport Canada questionnaire, but he didn't recognize the deck would require a stability assessment, says the report.

In 2017, Transport inspectors looked at the Tyhawk again, but on that occasion the removable deck wasn't attached. They issued a certification allowing the Tyhawk to continue in the crab fishery.

In its report, the board recommended that Transport Canada provide clearer definitions of what constitutes a "major modification."

The board is also recommending that when owners are planning to modify a fishing boat, they be required to bring in a "competent" person to determine if the changes require a stability assessment.

The report also says that despite concerns raised by Elsipogtog First Nation, where the Tyhawk was based, the federal Fisheries Department advanced the opening date of the crab season by three weeks without completely assessing the safety risks.

It recommends the federal Fisheries Department ensure that risks to fish harvesters are identified and to include independent safety experts in that decision-making process.

Transport Canada said in an email that the minister will respond to the board's report within 90 days. The federal Fisheries Department said it "will take the necessary time" to review the recommendation and respond.

In a July 7 statement to The Canadian Press, Transport Canada said the agency continues to believe that requiring a stability assessment for all fishing vessels "would not be feasible due to limitations on the number of available competent persons that are qualified to carry out stability assessments, and the large number of fishing vessels in the Canadian fleet."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2023.

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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