Search for missing fishing boat captain off Nova Scotia scaled back

A rescue operation to find the captain of a fishing boat that ran aground Tuesday off the coast of Canso, N.S., has been scaled back.

Fellow fishermen frustrated by efforts to rescue Captain Roger Stoddard of Fisherman's Provider II

A Cormorant helicopter lands near the Fishermen’s Provider II. (Submitted by Stephen Scott Bushell)

The rescue operation to find the captain of a fishing boat that ran aground off the coast of northeast mainland Nova Scotia has been scaled back.

The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax announced late Thursday afternoon there have been no signs of the captain of the Fisherman's Provider II, which had been foundering on a shoal about four kilometres off Canso since Tuesday.

Two friends of the captain confirmed his identity as Roger Stoddard.

"When we officially reduce a search, it's because we believe we've made every effort available and we do not reasonably think the person would be located alive," Canadian Coast Guard officer Marc Ouellette told a news conference Thursday.

There were four people on board when a radio message was sent out that the fishermen were abandoning ship. Another fishing vessel, the Miss Lexi, came to the stranded men's aid and the crew managed to get three of the fishermen off the vessel.

"Unfortunately, the captain elected to remain on board," Ouellette said. "Over the next 24 hours, guard made every effort to maintain on-scene coverage … with coast guard vessels. They were instructed to board the vessel if it was safe to do so and monitor for any signs of the captain aboard the vessel." 

A Canadian Coast Guard vessel is stationed to the right of the vessel Fishermen’s Provider II, which ran aground Tuesday off the coast of Canso, N.S. (Stephen Scott Bushell)

Ouellette said the weather prevented anyone from getting on board the fishing boat. There was a line tethering the Coast Guard vessel to the fishing boat as well as a life-raft attached to the fishing boat.

"Neither were utilized. No sightings of the captain were reported in the 24 hours," Ouellette said.

An aerial search within a 10-kilometre radius of the vessel using infrared and radar also did not turn up any signs of the captain, Ouellette said.

A Hercules plane and Cormorant helicopter were involved in the search Wednesday, said Maj. Mark Norris of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre. Boarding the vessel was not possible that day, he said.

The search has now been handed over to the RCMP as a missing persons case, he said. A Canadian Coast Guard ship is remaining near the vessel overnight to monitor it for environmental purposes.

Friends question rescue effort

Leonard Jewers, of Clarks Harbour, said he knows the captain, identifying him as Roger Stoddard.

"Excellent guy, good fisherman," he told CBC News on Thursday morning.

Jewers, who has fished with Stoddard in the past, believes an attempt should have been made to contact the captain to see what condition he was in.

On Wednesday night, fisherman and family friend Steve Goreham broke the news to Stoddard's daughter that her father did not get off the boat.

"She didn't have a clue. I called her up and asked her if she was home. I said, 'I've got to come down and see you. Stay where you are.' She was shocked, hysterical. Nobody told her.

"Nobody from RCMP or [the rescue co-ordination centre] contacted her even to let her know her father was missing. They knew at 3 p.m. yesterday, they said they were going to notify next of kin. Last night at 9 p.m. she didn't know then," he said Thursday.

Rescuers were hoping to find the captain of the Fishermen’s Provider II. (Stephen Scott Bushell)

Jewers said he wished he could have gone out to the shoal himself on Wednesday night.

"I definitely would have put my life on the line. There was a coast guard boat alongside of it all night long but nobody wanted go aboard the boat. What pisses me off is that that man [Stoddard] could have been alive," Goreham said.

"Roger was one of the toughest men I know."

But as time goes by, with freezing temperatures on the water, hope is fading, he said.

A Cormorant helicopter landed on the shoal earlier on Thursday and rescue workers braved high winds and waves to walk to where the fishing boat ran aground, according to Nelson Harnish, who lives in the area and was using binoculars to watch what was happening from the Canso marina.

'Could have been trapped'

Jewers is frustrated that precious time has been wasted.

"Somebody hasn't been doing 100 per cent of their job. I don't understand how they can airlift a person off a boat at 70 miles of wind, how come they couldn't put someone down on that boat yesterday to see if that man was dead or alive?" he said.

"It just don't make sense to me that someone didn't get aboard that boat yesterday when they knew it was coming for harder weather last night. He could have been trapped somewhere inside the vessel."

Harnish said so far there has been no sign of the captain. 

"This is the first time they got close to the boat to get aboard of it to see if the captain is still aboard," he said.

The fishing vessel started taking on water Tuesday night and a distress call was sent out around 8 p.m., according to RCMP. 

Captain acting strangely

It's not clear why the captain decided to stay on board. 

Harnish spoke to the crew members after they were rescued, and he was told the captain wasn't acting like himself and didn't want to leave the boat or get in the life-raft with the other men.

Joint Task Force Atlantic said the men who were rescued appeared to be in good shape.

The Transportation Safety Board has sent a team of investigators to the area to gather information and assess the situation.

With files from Brett Ruskin