New safety gear needed for lobster fishermen, but supply comes up short

P.E.I. lobster fishermen will have some new safety gear on board when the spring lobster season opens at the end of April.

Transport Canada changes require more lifeboats, survival suits and location signaling devices

Jamie Gauthier prepares for the spring lobster season on the dock at North Rustico, P.E.I. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

P.E.I. lobster fishermen will have some new safety gear on board when the spring lobster season opens at the end of April.

At least, they are supposed to, after new federal safety rules came into effect last July. But the new fishery safety standards affect more than 22,000 Canadian boats and that has left many fishermen scrambling to get the gear they need.

Under the new Transport Canada regulations unveiled in 2016, fishing vessels are required to have specific safety gear on board, including a life raft, survival suits and a location signaling device.

For the spring lobster fishery on P.E.I., there are 1,000 licences and, on average, three crew members per boat. That's 1,000 life rafts and at least 3,000 survival suits for that fishery alone.

The life rafts are one of the items that are required under the new Transport Canada regulations. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"I got my order in quick so I actually have everything or it's on its way for this season," said Jamie Gauthier, who fishes lobster out of North Rustico. "But I know there's a lot of people that have some of the equipment on back order just because of the sheer volume of life rafts that need to be purchased throughout all of Canada."

"Some of our executive is hearing that there's quite a bit of equipment back ordered and so that's presenting a challenge," said Ian MacPherson, executive director of the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association. "Obviously people can't have equipment if they can't get it from the suppliers so we're hoping those orders get filled in fairly short order."

'Nobody likes change'

Some P.E.I. fishermen were unhappy when the new federal safety rules came into effect, saying they were being forced them to spend thousands of dollars they would never use.

Gauthier already had life rafts because they are required for his deep sea fishing tours. But he estimates it will cost fishermen between $4-5,000 for all of the equipment.

"It's the same as everything, nobody likes change, nobody likes spending money," Gauthier said. "But I think it's money well spent if ever we had to use it once, it would be worth every penny. You can't really go too overboard on safety."

A spokesperson for Transport Canada said they are hearing about some delays in delivery of the safety equipment.

"We're hearing that equipment is generally available with a few exceptions for certain types of equipment, such as a life rafts for example," said Ian Campbell, manager of the national marine safety program with Transport Canada.

"But manufacturers and providers of life rafts have told us there should not be an issue provided the fishermen don't wait until the last minute obviously, one could understand how that might complicate matters."

Graduated approach

Campbell said Transport Canada will be taking a graduated approach in enforcing the new regulations and for now, fishermen are unlikely to be fined if they're caught without the gear. 

"Marine safety officers will assess the safety risk that's associated with the noncompliance and then they look at the efforts that the owner has made to achieve that compliance and then they can grant some more time," Campbell said.

Under the new regulations, there has to be a survival suit for every crew member. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"This is about safety, this is about safety equipment, and for the safety of the crew."

The PEIFA is happy to hear that there will be a phase in, not fines.

"Not only our organization but a number of organizations have been working with Transport Canada to get a sensible phase in here and we're hoping that's going to work out," MacPherson said.

There are about 1,000 licences in the spring lobster season on P.E.I. which means a thousand new life rafts and at least 3,000 survival suits. (Nathan Rochford/Canadian Press)

Gauthier will be doing some safety training before he and his crew head out to set traps later this month.

"That goes without saying that most captains will familiarize their crews with the safety equipment that we had previously and now familiarize yourselves with the new stuff," Gauthier said. 

"We've never had to use any of our safety equipment, knock on wood, but if it has to be used once, it's worth while having it."

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About the Author

Nancy Russell

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca