New Brunswick

Tabusintac fisherman fought for dredging before death

The northeastern New Brunswick community of Tabusintac is still grieving the loss of three fishermen after their boat ran aground on a sandbar in May.

Friend says she has 'rage inside of me' over fisherman's death

A fishing season to forget in Tabusintac

10 years ago
Duration 9:32
The deaths of three young fishermen have left the village of Tabusintac, New Brunswick, struggling with some very big questions.

The northeastern New Brunswick community of Tabusintac is still grieving the loss of three fishermen after their boat ran aground on a sandbar in May.

Fishermen had been complaining about the narrow channel in the area and had urged Fisheries and Oceans Canada to dredge the area.

Adenice Holmes's common-law husband, Ian, died in a fishing accident in May. She said her husband had tried to raise awareness about the need to open up the gully. (CBC)

Adenice Holmes said her common-law husband, Ian Benoit, had personally tried to raise awareness about the need to open up the gully.

"It concerned him and everybody at the wharf," she said.

"So somebody has to, you know, do something about it. He was trying. He was trying. It needs to be done. It really does."

Benoit, Samuel-René Boutin, 23, of Saumarez, and Alfred Rousselle, 32, of Brantville, were all killed when their boat capsized after it became stuck in a narrow trench that allowed boats to pass through a sandbar.

Troubled lobster season

The lobster season in northeastern New Brunswick closed on Saturday, ending a troubled fishing season in the region.

Lobster fishermen throughout the province have been facing low prices and many fishermen kept their boats tied up in May in protest to the low prices.

But the fight for better prices for their catch was only part of the problem for the people in Tabusintac.

Five lobster boats were destroyed by fire in early May. And then tragedy struck a few weeks later when Benoit's boat capsized.

Weldon Harding, a veteran lobster fisherman in the community, was on the water the same day that Benoit’s boat capsized. He said the channel was just too narrow to navigate.

"You could have fished but the way the gully is … the end of it is filled in. The sand bar filled in farther, where the channel marker was. It had filled in where we used to hug them tight," Harding said.

"He was a good fisherman. He knew what he was doing," he said of Benoit.

"You know there were things said that he might be inexperienced or the rental boat he wasn’t used to it, stuff like that … But he knew what he was doing. I saw him sitting there. He was doing the same thing I was doing."

Dredging was being studied

Nine days after the accident, a dredging company hired by Fisheries and Oceans Canada began clearing the gully.

The federal department declined to be interviewed citing an investigation by the Transportation Safety Board.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in a statement issued after the accident it had been working on a plan with local fishermen since last fall to dredge an access channel to McEachern’s Point.

Two sounding surveys were conducted on April 22 and May 7 and then the department requested the proper permits from Environment Canada.

"The geographic location and the tidal currents of McEachern’s Point naturally encourage sedimentation. The access channel has shifted 250 metres south from its position last year," the statement said.

The federal government also indicated poor weather may have been a factor in the tragedy.

"We understand that bad weather and large waves were a factor and that the incident took place outside of the area that was to be dredged," the statement said.

Accident happened in rental boat

The massive blaze in early May destroyed the boat owned by Benoit and his brother Eric as well as the one owned by Harding.

The RCMP announced on July 3 the cause of the fire remains undetermined. The extent of the damage and the sinking of the boats meant there was "no evidence available to determine the exact cause of the fire," according to the RCMP.

After the fire, the fishermen had crews to pay and expenses to cover. Anxious to make up for lost time and lost income, the Tabusintac lobster fleet ventured out to sea on May 17 in heavy winds.

'I suppose they were praying that we could get to them and I was praying that I could get to them too. But I mean, you can only go so far.'— Weldon Harding, fisherman

Once into the bay, Benoit and the others decided it was too rough to work and they opted to turn back.

But as Benoit maneuvered through the now-churning gully, a rogue wave pushed his boat onto the sandbar.

"I seen the wave hit him, pick him up and take him over there and then I went in to try to get him, they just kept coming, big waves, hitting me," Harding said.

Harding was a few hundred metres away, but in the narrow, wind-whipped gully, the risk of grounding his own boat and crew kept him too far away to even call out to his friend.

"He knew we were there and people were trying to get him," Harding said.

"I suppose they were praying that we could get to them and I was praying that I could get to them too. But I mean, you can only go so far."

Ian's twin, Eric, was also fishing that day and he watched helplessly as the sea claimed his brother.

"When I saw the boat on the bar and I saw it just filling with water and I saw the two men on top of the wheelhouse and we couldn't do anything for them," he said.

"At that time, I really thought it was too late."

Community still saddened by the tragedy

The eventual dredging conducted by the federal government was too late for Benoit and his crew.

Many people in the community remain saddened by the tragedy.

Genevieve Harding, Weldon’s wife, said Benoit was "like a son."

She said she wonders why so little was done to safeguard the fishermen of Tabusintac.

"I have no right to blame the gully, but I do and the government," she said.

"I have rage inside of me. I’m mad in a way because it doesn’t seem to bother them. How the hell could it bother them? They aren’t living them. We are."

The deaths have touched many lives in the community. Friends and neighbours have gathered to comfort the grieving and raise a trust fund for the children who have been left fatherless; children who one day might fish the same waters themselves.

Adenice Holmes wonders whether her children will follow the career path of their father.

"I don't know ... if they do, I'll be proud of them," she said.

As for Harding, he is keeping busy working on a replacement boat.

He will be ready for next year's lobster season but he said the passion for fishing just isn't there.

"Before I loved to go … now the love is kind of gone, for going through that hole. I still like to fish but when you look back and see a good trap, you don’t get the joy you used to get," he said.

"Before it was like you were a kid in a candy shop, but not anymore. Hopefully it will come back some day but I don’t know."

Harding said it is the memory of the tragedy that haunts him.

"It will always be there. You’ll never forget. I’ll never forget what I’ve seen, what happened. I’ll have to live with it the rest of my life."