N.L. search and rescue incident rate double the national average, Senate report finds

The report by the Senate's Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, titled "When Every Minute Counts: Maritime Search and Rescue," was tabled on Thursday.

'When Every Minute Counts' lists 17 recommendations that could save lives, says senator

Crews practise hoisting from a fishing vessel in November 2016. Each year, an estimated 600 lives are saved and 18 others are lost off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador — double the national average, with the majority happening on water. (JTFA FOIA/Twitter)

With double the national average of maritime search and rescue incidents, Newfoundland and Labrador "has endured its share of tragic events over the years," says a new Senate report.

The report by the Senate's Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, titled "When Every Minute Counts: Maritime Search and Rescue," was tabled on Thursday.

Senator and committee chair Fabian Manning said this topic hit close to home for him.

"This is something that the people of my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador know all too well," he told reporters during a press conference in Ottawa.

Manning said the commercial fishing industry has the highest fatality rate among all other employment sectors in Canada, with one death every month.

If the government heeds our recommendations — which we hope it will  — this report may save lives.- Jim Munson

The report involved an in-depth study of maritime search and rescue operations on Canada's east and west coasts, and in the north.

It includes a list of 17 recommendations that outline the committee's "serious policy concerns" about search and rescue in Canada.

Sen. Fabian Manning, centre, who is the committee chair, says search and rescue is a subject the people of his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador know all too well. (CBC)

The recommendations include:

  • Expanding search and rescue capabilities in the Canadian Arctic, as well as recruiting Indigenous cadets and employees, including those proficient in Inuktitut.
     
  • A pilot project with the Department of National Defence to authorize civilian helicopter operators to provide air search and rescue coverage in the Canadian Arctic and in Newfoundland and Labrador.
     
  • Increasing funding to the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary organizations, which respond to 25 per cent of search and rescue calls.
     
  • Making emergency position-indicating radio beacons mandatory in vessels in all fishing fleets within the next two years, and other recommendations to increase safety in the commercial fishing industry.
     
  • Extending the Canadian Coast Guard's capital planning from five to 20 years, to reflect the need for the search and rescue fleet's renewal, upgrade, and modernization.

Senator Jim Munson​ called search and rescue a serious subject.

"We want government to act on this report," he said. 

"And if the government heeds our recommendations — which we hope it will — this report may save lives."

Private helicopter companies could fill some gaps

One of the recommendations is about the use of private helicopter companies helping in search and rescue operations.

The committee said it believes those companies could fill some gaps in coverage, specifically in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Canadian Arctic.

Newfoundland and Labrador has the longest coastline among Canadian provinces, at 28,000 kilometres — and its weather severity comes close to that of the Canadian Arctic, notes the report.

"During the hearings in St. John's, the committee heard that the province has endured its share of tragic events over the years," the report notes.

Each year, it's estimated that 600 lives are saved and 18 others are lost off the coast of the province — double the national average, with the majority happening on water.

The 103 Search and Rescue Squadron fish five sealers out of the water in March 2017. (JTFA/Twitter)

Committee members were also told about a shift in how fisheries are conducted in Newfoundland and Labrador, with more vessels out more frequently, a longer fishing season, and activities moving further out from shore.

The report also references an increase in offshore oil and gas development, and more recreational boating.

"Given the lack of a [Canadian Armed Forces] fixed-wing SAR aircraft in the province, having a private aeronautical SAR asset staged at proximity of these marine activities could reduce SAR response times and improve outcomes," the report reads. 

"The assessment of the pilot project, including its costs and benefits, should be made public."

Manning called this a "worthwhile project" to see what can be delivered. The senator said he will make himself available in St. John's on Friday to provide "an opportunity to ask in-depth questions" about the report.

Provincial government waiting for report

The provincial government had said it was waiting for the Senate report to be released before looking into conducting its own inquiry into the death of Labrador teen Burton Winters.

In 2012, the 14-year-old was alone on the sea ice outside Makkovik when his snowmobile became stuck. 

It was two days before Canadian Forces search and rescue aircraft were brought in to look for him.

The boy's body was recovered three days after he went missing.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Jen White

CBC News

Jen White is a journalist with CBC News in St. John's.

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