This week on The Fisheries Broadcast we revealed a little tidbit of news that could have some big implications for both the fishery and the boat building industries here in this province.

We managed to confirm that Transport Canada is moving to replace the existing small fishing vessel regulations, possibly as early as next year. What that means, in a nutshell, is that fishermen will finally be able to build the larger boats they need in some cases to participate in the rapidly changing fishery.

For many years, in order to be considered a small fishing vessel, a boat had to be less than 65 feet in length (the so-called 64-11 rule) and less than 150 gross tonnes. Anything bigger than that and you would end up classified under the much more arduous and expensive large fishing vessel rules.

The problem with those rules is that in the minds of many, they compromised safety because the fishery had changed a great deal in the wake of the moratorium, and fishermen were going further out to sea in more dangerous conditions with more equipment on-board than ever before. 

The issue really got crystallized just over nine years ago when the Ryan's Commander capsized off Bonavista, taking the lives of brothers Dave and Joe Ryan with her. A detailed investigation by the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) concluded the design of the vessel was partly responsible for the tragedy.

Recognizing that fact, in 2006 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans decided to get rid of the length restriction and allow small fishing vessels to be built as long as 89 feet 11 inches. 

The problem is that Transport Canada didn't remove the 150 tonne restriction at the same time, and the result is that very few larger boats have been built in the past seven years.

But now that's about to change.

Keeping up with industry

"Moving towards a length cut-off instead of a tonnage cut-off is aligned with international best practices and is more straightforward for both Transport Canada and the fishing industry," a Transport Canada spokesperson told me. 

What that means is, once the new rules go into effect, fishermen will be able to build new vessels that exceed 150 gross tonnes without necessarily having to comply with the large fishing vessel inspection regulations.

And based on what I've been hearing from boat builders, there are more than a few harvesters who have been waiting in the wings for the rules to change so they can build a larger boat.

Now while this is good news if you're looking to build a new boat, the news may not be quite as good for anyone looking to change an existing boat. 

The new regulations will apply to a new fishing vessel that is less than 24 metres in length regardless of tonnage, and to an existing fishing vessel that is not more than 24.4 metres and that is not more than 150 gross tonnes. That means vessels currently regulated by the Small Fishing Vessel Inspection Regulations will continue to be regulated as small fishing vessels, and at the same time, vessels currently regulated by the Large Fishing Vessel Inspection Regulations will continue to be regulated as large fishing vessels. 

Not without safety changes

And there's another potential wrinkle: the changes will apparently come with some new safety regulations.

"Although the proposed regulations will remove the tonnage cut-off for new vessel construction, they will also introduce revised safety requirements. Transport Canada does not restrict the size of vessel that can be built. Instead, the Department implements safety requirements that are appropriate to the size and operation of the vessels," Transport Canada said.

So while harvesters will be able to build larger boats, it seems there could be some new and different safety regulations involved. That could be a fly in the ointment, but until we see the full set of proposed changes we can't say for sure.

If it's done right, we might see larger sand safer vessels, better geared for a changing fishery. We might also see a resurgence in the boat building industry that hasn't had a boom period since the 1990s when fishermen had to change and modify their vessels to meet the demands of new fisheries in the wake of the groundfish collpase.

If it's done wrong, we'll be back here next year talking about how legislative fantasies don't match up with industry realities. Be it ever thus.

In issues pertaining to the fishery, there's always a catch.