Nfld. & Labrador

'People are desperate': La Scie store owner explains why fishermen risk pack ice

"Desperate times" are driving fishermen to risk their boats - and their lives - by heading out into waters clogged with heavy pack ice, according to the father of a crewman rescued off the Baie Verte Peninsula.

'Boats are not fishing, their EI has run out and it doesn't seem like anyone gives a crap about it'

Neil Ward says "people are desperate" because the fishing season is delayed. (Neil Ward/Facebook)

"Desperate times" are driving fishermen to risk their boats — and their lives — by heading out into waters clogged with heavy pack ice, according to a store owner in La Scie, who is also the father of one of the crew members rescued Wednesday off Newfoundland's Baie Verte Peninsula.

"This time of year, you got your insurances and payments and things and you got to get fishing. Most people around here haven't drawn EI [employment insurance] or anything from probably the middle of January," said Neil Ward, who runs the La Scie Stop 'N' Shop.

"People are finding the pinch, finding it hard going ... People are desperate."

Ward's son was on the Avalon Princess, which started taking on water Wednesday afternoon and eventually sank. The crew was rescued by a Cormorant helicopter. Several other vessels remained stuck as of Wednesday night. 

"He was in a bit of shock, I guess mixed emotions right now, highs and lows coming together all at the same time," said Ward, who spoke with his son shortly after the rescue.

Neil Ward says his son was part of the crew that had to be rescued after the vessel became stuck in sea ice and started taking on water. Several other boats remain trapped. (Jamie Matthews/Submitted)

Ward is dismayed that Canadian Coast Guard has said the ice conditions are so bad, its icebreaker can't be dispatched to help the stranded fishing boats. 

"I think it's awful that we haven't got someone to say, 'listen, we'll help you out here.' If the coast guard can get them through, get them through. Sure, the ice conditions are too bad right now, but they weren't a day or so ago; they could have done this," Ward told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

"If we don't help out, we're going to have more of the same thing."

Risks associated with rescue, Coast Guard says

The "persistent" pack ice just isn't conducive to reaching the stranded vessels, according to Trevor Hodgson, superintendent of ice for the Canadian Coast Guard's Atlantic region.

"[We] risk damaging not only the vessels we're trying to assist, but our own vessels as well. There is always a risk when we're dealing with this thick multi-year ice that propeller blades can hit it and cause damage that way," he said. 

Three of four fishing boats caught in sea ice near La Scie will have to wait a little longer to be rescued, as the Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen was called off on Wednesday due to severe conditions. (DFO)

"If the conditions were safe enough for us to do it here, we would be looking at it," Hodgson said,

"It's something we would do if they were in trouble or have risk of going into trouble and we could do something for them, it's something we would look at. But the regular operations, it's not something we normally do," he added. 

Hodgson has this piece of advice for fishermen as the pack ice persists into June.  

"Check your route, make sure you're sure that you're going to be clear of this heavy ice before you head out."

Ward says people are asking for credit in order to purchase items because EI payments have stopped, but the fishing season has yet to begin. (La Scie Stop 'N' Shop/Facebook)

That's little comfort to Ward, who says the financial strain to make ends meet is a serious "pressure" — not just in La Scie but in other communities across the province.

"Normally most of the boats around here are fishing in May ... The season is moving along pretty fast. Once it's gone, it's gone — it's a season. It's forcing people to go," said Ward. 

"There's not an hour's work for anyone. It's desperate times and I don't know if the government is realizing it."

We're working on it: MP Scott Simms

Liberal MP Scott Simms said the government is working on the concerns voiced by Ward and others. 

"We need some sort of bridging to get these people through this difficult season," Simms said in an interview outside the House of Commons Wednesday. 

"The implications are stark actually ... they haven't landed anything of substance, nothing substantial, since January, so it is a big cut for us. This is a huge, drastic situation for this ice to hover over the northeast coast of Newfoundland."

MP Scott Simms says the heavy ice off the northeast coast of Newfoundland has stark implications for the provincial economy. (CBC)

Simms, who represents Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, said the government is "working on something right now" and he hopes to have an announcement "really soon."

But that feels already too late for Ward. 

"I've got customers now in the last week or so come here and ask for credit and never asked for credit before in their life. Their money has been cut off," Ward said.

"All the inshore boats are not fishing, their EI has run out and it doesn't seem like anyone gives a crap about it."

With files from The Broadcast