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EDITORIAL: Tackle safety faults now to curtail fishing tragedies

A CH149 Cormorant helicopter helped in the search for a missing fisher, one of five crew members aboard a fishing vessel that had been reported sinking about 29 kilometres off of Cheticamp on Saturday night.
A CH149 Cormorant helicopter helped search for a missing fisher, one of five crew members aboard a vessel reported sinking about 29 kilometres off Cheticamp, N.S. on Saturday night. - Contributed

Year in, year out, two things have long been certain in the Atlantic Canadian commercial fishing industry.

First, thousands of fish harvesters — to make a living — will head out into the challenging North Atlantic, Gulf of St. Lawrence and Bay of Fundy in search of everything from shellfish to groundfish.

Second, tragically, some will not come back.

Late Saturday afternoon, almost 30 kilometres off the northwest coast of Cape Breton, the Tyhawk, a 13.6-metre, 20-year-old fishing vessel from Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick — out on the stormy opening day of snow crab season — capsized and sank.

Four crewmembers were pulled from icy waters by rescuers, but one died. The vessel’s captain is missing and presumed dead.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is now gathering information to determine whether to launch a formal investigation.

The tragedy comes less than four months after six people lost their lives when the Chief William Saulis, a 15-metre fishing vessel out of Digby, sank while returning to port with a load of scallops in mid-December.

Last May, four fishermen died when the 12-metre Sarah Anne out of St. Lawrence, NL, sank off the southern coast of Newfoundland while fishing for crabs.

The TSB is investigating those sinkings.

There’s speculation the early start of snow crab season — shifted this year to help protect North Atlantic right whales — may have been a factor in the loss of the Tyhawk, but it’s too early to know for sure exactly what happened.

What is clear, however, is that despite commercial fishing safety being on the TSB’s watchlist since 2010, and despite repeated recommendations and warnings about the same safety deficiencies going back decades, the number of lives lost annually in the industry has remained steady, averaging about 10 per year.

“The vast majority, if not all, of these fatalities are preventable,” the TSB said in its 2020 watchlist issued in October.

A TSB study of commercial fishing industry fatalities between 2011 and 2017 found the biggest causes were a person going overboard (43 per cent) and vessel stability issues (35 per cent).

“Addressing these two safety deficiencies would contribute to a significant reduction in the number of fishing-related fatalities, given the number of deaths currently associated with falling overboard or stability/capsizing events,” the TSB said in October.

A number of commercial fishing seasons open this spring in Atlantic Canadian waters, including for snow crab, shrimp, lobster, groundfish and seals.

Before even more lives are needlessly lost, we urge both governments and the industry to tackle the changes needed in behaviour and attitudes to improve commercial fishing safety.

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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