New fishery safety standards to affect about 20,000 Canadian boats

After 14 years of consulting with the fishing industry, Transport Canada has released new fishery safety standards.

'There is a tradition of tragedy surrounding the fishing industry,' says safety association director

Poseidon Princess skipper Martin d'Entremont credits good safety practices with saving the lives of all aboard when the vessel sank last year. (Submitted by Molly d'Entremont)

A cool head, safety training and a decision to keep survival suits handy kept Martin d'Entremont and his crew alive when things went terribly wrong on board the Poseidon Princess, 102 kilometres off southwest Nova Scotia in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2015.

"I never dreamed she would go so fast," says d'Entremont, 57, a veteran skipper from West Pubnico, N.S.

The 20-metre dragger was carrying 51,000 kilograms of haddock on her way back from Georges Bank when she started listing and capsized within minutes.

D`Entremont, two crewmen and a fisheries observer had enough time to scramble into their survival suits and follow a planned exit out of the cabin before plunging into the sea. They were rescued by two other fishing vessels.

It was a harrowing event for all involved — the fishery observer could not reach the life-raft and was barely conscious when plucked from the ocean — but it was a tale they all lived to tell.

"The takeaway is, never be too prepared. Never be too careful," says d'Entremont from the wheelhouse of his new fishing boat Cape Roseway, one of dozens tied up in Pubnico, one of Canada's largest wild fishery ports.

One of Canada's most dangerous occupations

The exact cause of the sinking remains unknown. What is clear is that safety procedures on board the Poseidon Princess saved lives as the boat slid under the waves, its lights winking out and engines shutting off in the darkness.

Poseidon Princess, the Pubnico, N.S. fishing vessel that sank last year. (Submitted by Molly d'Entremont)

Transport Canada is now proposing new vessel safety regulations to make the fishery safer.

They were published earlier this month, along with the reasons for them:

"The lack of adequate safety equipment, vessel stability, and clear vessel operational procedures on board fishing vessels pose a significant threat to safety, rendering commercial fishing one of the most dangerous occupations in Canada." 

The changes being proposed follow 14 years of consultation with the fishing industry. They are expected to affect about 20,000 boats, mostly in Atlantic Canada.

"The loss of life has been deemed unacceptable. There's been an average of 13 fatalities [annually] over the past 10 years or more and that trend hasn't changed despite everybody's best efforts," says Ian Campbell, manager for small fishing vessels design and standards at Transport Canada Marine Safety.

Requirements increase with risk

The new requirements will be based primarily on risk, regardless of size or tonnage. Fishing vessels operating farthest from shore would be required to have more safety items than ones operating closer to shore.

All fishing vessels will be required  to enhance safety procedures, fire fighting and lifesaving equipment.

Owners will be allowed to select from a variety of safety options — from fire extinguishers to life-rafts, life buoys, buoyant lines and immersion suits — depending on where the vessel operates. Those are classified as unlimited, near coastal one within 200 miles, near coastal two within 25 miles and sheltered within two miles of shore.

All new vessels over nine metres will have to meet vessel stability requirements.

Ottawa says new regulations governing boat construction will be phased in later.

'This is a significant change'

"This is a significant change. The regulations are over 40 years old and they haven't been updated since the 1970s," Campbell says.

"On the other hand, the industry has been in many ways exceeding the current requirements that are on our books right now."

An analysis of the new regulations published in the Canada Gazette on Feb. 6 estimates complying with the regulations will cost the fishing industry a total of $14.9 million over the next decade but generate $259 million in net benefits.

Crew members are shown aboard the Poseidon Princess which sank last year. Safety gear and training saved the lives of those on board. (Submitted by Molly d'Entremont)

The analysis also predicts the new measures will save 5.23 lives and prevent 16.43 vessel sinkings every year.

Transport Canada is now seeking public comment on its amendments to the Small Vessel Inspection Regulations, which it expects to go into effect in late 2017.

Ottawa clarifying the rules

Stewart Franck of the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia says the current safety regime is "awkward" and "poorly communicated."

"This is a clarification of what equipment is needed, where and when, the training required and the safety procedures on board vessels," Franck said in an interview at the Port Medway wharf in Queens County, N.S.

Franck says the new regulations will spell out requirements for inspection and maintenance of safety equipment.

"There's no doubt there is a tradition of tragedy surrounding the fishing industry," he says.

"We have to recognize that the vast majority of people are doing the right thing, working safely. They are coming home after every trip."

Martin d'Entremont and the company he fishes for, Inshore Fisheries Limited, have incorporated safety into their operations. That attitude made the difference when their ship went down. But the experience was traumatic. It took about a month and half before the crew members were ready to return to sea.

"We got this boat. We rigged it up," d'Entremont says, leaning on the captain's chair in the Cape Roseway.

"When we were ready to sail, we sat down at the table. Me and my two crew members and I said, 'Are we ready to go?' We had a discussion. 'Are we ready to go?' And we said 'Yeah' and away we went."

They sailed again on Wednesday.

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About the Author

Paul Withers

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Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

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