With aging ships stuck in refits, nearly $300K being spent on charter for crucial fisheries survey

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans is being forced to spend $290,000 to charter an offshore fishing trawler for a science survey because two Canadian Coast Ships are currently out of commission on extended refits.

Annual winter survey gathers information near Georges Bank to manage fisheries worth tens of millions

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Alfred Needler is out of commission until April due to a longer-than-expected refit. The delays are becoming more common for the aging coast guard ships. (CBC)

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans is being forced to spend $290,000 to charter an offshore fishing trawler for a science survey because two Canadian Coast Ships are currently out of commission on extended refits.

The Liverpool-based Mersey Venture has been hired as the platform for an abbreviated version of the annual winter fisheries survey on Georges Bank, a 10-hour voyage from the southern tip of Nova Scotia.

The vessel is expected to arrive at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography early next week, coast guard spokesperson Vance Chow said in a statement to CBC News.

The Mersey Venture has been charted for 11 days. The annual survey on Georges usually takes five weeks.

Refit reveals more problems

The mission usually starts mid-February aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Alfred Needler, but the 36-year-old vessel is high and dry these days in a St. John's shipyard.

The Needler's scheduled $558,000 refit at the St. John's Dockyard Ltd. was supposed to be done over six weeks, with a completion date of Feb. 14.

Now, officials say the vessel will not be ready until April 1.

"As the refit work was progressing, it was determined that additional steel work would be required. This is what caused the delay," Chow said in an e-mail to CBC News.

Replacement ship is also out of commission

A second coast guard ship, the Teleost, was expected to fill in. However, it's also unavailable because its scheduled refit had to be extended.

The Teleost will not be able to sail until March 30.

The 30-year-old ship is currently in St. John's where crews are completing repairs.

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Teleost was expected to take over the voyage to carry out an important fisheries survey on Georges Bank, but it remains docked because of a delay in its refit. (CBC)

"During the course of the refit, it was determined that additional steel work in the freezer area will have to be completed before the vessel is operational," said Chow.

Public Services and Procurement Canada awarded $1.6-million in refit contracts for the Teleost to the St. John's Dockyard in late 2016 and 2017.

On their winter survey, researchers focus on the rich fishing grounds of Georges Bank. Scientists have returned to the area each winter since 1987 where they sample fish and invertebrates to gauge their abundance.

The information gathered is used to manage fisheries worth tens of millions of dollars.

Last year, the Georges Bank survey began on the Needler, but was completed by the Teleost because of mechanical problems on the Needler.

Complications also plagued 2017 Hudson refit

If all this sounds familiar, that's because it is.

In 2017, the federal government spent more than $2.5 million chartering three private vessels for science surveys off the East Coast because Canada's premier research vessel, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Hudson, was unavailable.

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Hudson returned to Halifax in November nearly six months behind schedule, after a $4-million refit. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Hudson refit at Heddle Marine in Hamilton was five months behind schedule when the federal government towed it out of the shipyard with the refit still incomplete in October 2017.

The coast guard has never explained what caused the delay.

It had a cascading impact, with one science mission scrubbed outright and others abbreviated.

New science vessels coming

The construction of three new offshore fisheries science vessels is underway at the Seaspan Shipyard in Vancouver, part of the National Shipbuilding Strategy. But the project is running behind schedule.

The first of the vessels, CCGS John Franklin, was supposed to be delivered to the coast guard by the end of 2017. It is now expected sometime in 2018.

Seaspan told CBC News the vessel is more than 90 per cent complete and will soon enter testing and trials.

"Following the successful completion of testing and trials, the vessel will be delivered the [Canadian Coast Guard]," spokesperson Nicholas Insley said in a statement.

The second vessel is 60 per cent complete and the third is 40 per cent complete, Insely said.

The Canadian Press reported in September 2017 the last of the three ships wont be ready until 2019.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

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.