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ALAN HOLMAN: Make PFDs mandatory on fishing boats

Local fishermen at Naufrage Harbour were some of the many people who kept an eye out for missing fisherman Jordan Hicken, who fell overboard on May 21. Local fishermen have also been supporting the family by hauling in their lobster traps.
Naufrage Harbour. - Katherine Hunt

It has been noted in past columns in this space that fishing is the most dangerous occupation in Canada. On a per capita basis more people die in the fishing industry than any other, including construction, mining and policing.

But, is enough being done. All other Island industries operate under stringent health and safety regulations; the fishery, not so much.

Not all, but most Island fishing boats are too small, or they don’t go far enough from shore, to fall under the federal department of transport regulations concerning safety measures requiring the crew to wear life-jackets.

And, most Island fishermen think that’s alright. They don’t want any more regulations. This lack of regulation would be fine, if Island fishermen were taking measures to prevent the kind of accident that happened recently off Naufrage when 22-year-old Jordan Hicken fell overboard, unnoticed, as the boat headed out to sea.

This year’s tragedy follows two incidents last year when four fishermen died, at least three of whom drowned.

None of the dead were wearing life-jackets or PFDs (personal flotation devices).

Enough is enough.

Clearly Island fishermen won’t do it on their own, so they must be forced through regulation to wear PFD’s when they are on their boats. It’s done in other provinces.

Both Nova Scotia and British Columbia use their provincial Occupational Health and Safety regulations to impose safety standards on fishing vessels, the same as they do for construction sites, mines, or any other place of employment.

Both provinces require fishermen and their crews to wear PFDs while on the boat. And, both provinces conduct education campaigns that underline the importance of safety at sea and the need for PFDs.

Interestingly, among the few fishermen on the Island who do wear PFDs are those who occasionally fish lobsters during the winter months in Nova Scotia.

PFDs are worn like a collar around your neck and are strapped around your waist. Unlike the old traditional life-jackets, PFDs are not cumbersome and don’t interfere with the fisherman’s ability to do their work.

The reluctance of Island fishermen to wear PFDs seems rooted in the idea there is something wimpish or sissified about wearing one. That real men, macho men, wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one. Unfortunately, as we have learned too often, the reverse is true. People are dead because they weren’t wearing a PFD.

There is also the myth, the belief, that it is bad luck to wear a life-jacket or a PFD. There are fishermen who to think that if anyone on the boat is wearing a life-jacket, then they’re just inviting a disaster.

There are people who refuse to do what is known to be good for them. Automobiles came equipped with seat belts long before it became the law to wear them. In fact, in 1988 the Island was one of the last provinces to make seat belts mandatory. It is highly unlikely that using seat belts would be the common habit it is today, if wearing one had remained voluntary.

With five deaths on the Island in less than a year, it’s time for the province to step up and follow the lead of Nova Scotia and British Columbia and make PFDs mandatory on all Island fishing vessels.

The regulations should be simple and clear, and include sufficient penalties to ensure that they would be followed. The regulations should also mandate the RCMP and provincial fisheries officers to enforce them. Like seat belts, where it is the car driver’s responsibility to see all passengers have their seat belts on, the regulations should make the boat captain responsible to ensure that everyone on board is wearing a PFD or life-jacket.

With two fishermen as members of its caucus, the new Conservative government should pass such legislation during the upcoming session of the legislature. There is no reason not to. There is no reason for delay. There is no need to study the issue. Everyone’s aware of the consequences from the lack of such regulations.

Enough is enough!

Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: alanholman19@gmail.com.

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