Sealers fear regulations in wake of fatal accident could force them out

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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HALIFAX - Sealers on Canada's East Coast say they could be pushed out of the annual hunt and their industry devastated if Ottawa toughens regulations in response to a deadly accident in heavy ice last March.
Several fishermen in Iles de la Madeleine and Newfoundland said a recommendation in a Transportation Safety Board report released last week could force them to make unaffordable upgrades to their sealing boats.
The report, which examined the loss of four sealers aboard L'Acadien II, said Transport Canada should draft regulations that would ensure boats operating in ice are "structurally suited" to the punishing environment.
But Frank Pinhorn of the Canadian Sealers Association said there's no need to change the way an entire industry is carried out because one boat went down while under tow by a coast guard icebreaker.
"Usually 2,000 vessels go out and, by and large, they come in without incident," he said over the weekend from Conception Bay South, N.L.
"So you can't use that and say everybody has got to now have super-structures to go out on the ice."
The safety board report found that the 12-metre L'Acadien II, which had a reinforced aluminum hull and rudder, was not "designed, constructed, or adequately modified to navigate in ice."
The small boat got into trouble off Cape Breton on March 29 just after venturing out from its home port in Iles de la Madeleine to participate in the hunt. The safety board said its steering system got damaged as it plowed through heavy ice, leaving it unable to turn properly.
The Sir William Alexander icebreaker began towing it, but the much smaller boat veered sharply to one side and into the path of a large ice pack. It capsized when it slammed into the ice, claiming the lives of four of the six sealers on board.
The federal agency said most boats heading out to the ice in the Gulf and off the Front, off Newfoundland, are ill-equipped to deal with thick pans of ice that can snag rudders or damage hulls.
Sealer Wayne Dickson, whose small boat was trailing behind L'Acadien II when it went down, said he and many people in the annual hunt won't be able to pay for costly upgrades and will have to leave the disputed industry.
"It's going to be the end of us, that's for sure," he said from his home in Iles de la Madeleine. "They're going to start with where the small guys is and work their way up. There'll be no seal hunt in the Gulf. That's where I see it headed."
Don Eaves, the board's lead investigator on the case, said improved regulations could include requirements for beefier engines and tougher hulls, tail shafts, gear boxes and rudders.
Joel Arseneau, mayor of Iles de la Madeleine, said calling for reinforced boats was like trying to "kill a fly with a bazooka" and skirts the real issue of safely towing boats through icy waters.
"It has nothing to do with the boat - the boat didn't sink because it wasn't reinforced - it was the towing operation," he said, adding that tougher regulations could exclude many sealers.
"That would be very detrimental to our community and the Atlantic region as a whole. That would really show how the right lessons weren't learned from that tragedy."
He estimates the hunt brings in up to $2 million annually for the cluster of islands west of Cape Breton, providing people with about 10 to 20 per cent of their $20,000 yearly salaries.

Organizations: Transportation Safety Board, Transport Canada, Canadian Sealers Association

Geographic location: Iles de la Madeleine, Newfoundland, Canada East Coast Ottawa Cape Breton Atlantic

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