Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Tragedy in St. Lawrence: The deadly, relentless sea reminds us of the steep cost of fishing

The deaths of a fishing crew from St. Lawrence are the latest in a line of catastrophes that underscore the risks of fishing for a living, writes John Gushue.

Fishing for a living is a risky business, and a series of catastrophes over the years proves it

St. Lawrence, like many coastal communities in Newfoundland, has been active in the fishery for generations. (Marie-Isabelle Rochon/Radio-Canada)

I've long wondered how many people in North America, as they peruse the offerings at their supermarkets, specialty stores and menus, ever give much thought to the unseen, human cost behind their tasty seafood.

Those who live close to the ocean know too well the perils that come with fishing.

Those who don't may never know. They can catch glimpses of terror in the headlines of nautical disasters, but they likely don't know the chill that comes so quickly to the blood when one actually happens.

This week, Newfoundland and Labrador felt that chill as St. Lawrence became the focus of a story that is both sadly and terrifyingly familiar.

The Sarah Anne, a fishing boat with four men aboard, did not come back as expected Monday night with a load of crab, — and indeed never came home at all. On Tuesday, searchers recovered three bodies: Edward Norman, 67; his son, Scott Norman, 35; and his nephew, Jody Norman, 42. Their friend, Isaac Kettle, could not be found, and the official search was halted Wednesday night.

An element in a community shrouded by grief: six young children lost their fathers. 

'How would you feel?'

Devastation and pain were clearly evident in the voice of Aundriette Kettle, the mother of the missing man.

"How would you feel, how would any mother feel without their son?" said Kettle, who pleaded with politicians to find the money to continue the coast guard search, and find the wreck of the Sarah Anne. (Fishermen from the community later went out again on their own.) 

Cousins Jody Norman, left, and Scott Norman were killed in the Sarah Anne sinking earlier this week, in the ocean off St. Lawrence. (Jody Norman/Facebook; Scott Norman/Facebook)

The answers to what happened may rest in the vessel's wreckage. For now, we do not know what happened to the Normans and their friend during that fateful time.

It's possible that the Transportation Safety Board of Canada — which earlier this week was collecting information before determining what class of investigation it would launch — will reveal the answers. It's also possible that we may never know.

Whatever happened, happened quickly, my colleague Anthony Germain tells me. Germain, who went to St. Lawrence to report on the tragedy for Here & Now, says the talk in the town focused on how the Normans had little time to react. Their vessel had an emergency craft aboard; the men evidently did not have time to get in it. Notably, the vessel was not equipped with an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, known more commonly by its acronym, an EPIRB. Such vessels are currently not required to have one installed. It's possible this case will prompt a regulatory change.

Tragedy in St. Lawrence: See Here & Now's coverage on Wednesday evening: 

The sinking happened in the dead of night. The weather seemed fine, but had it turned rough? Was the fishermen's catch of crab too heavy?  If the TSB does dispatch investigators to the wharves in St. Lawrence, Germain said, it's likely they will hear about whether the Sarah Anne — a 35-footer, and thus not a big vessel — may have been struck by a much larger ship steaming on full power south of Newfoundland.

Whatever happened, Germain told me he saw the mood in St. Lawrence shift, from sorrow to anger. The tragedy is not sitting right with people in the town. Something happened … but what?

A narrative we know well

Catastrophe at sea is, unfortunately, a familiar narrative in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The four men who lost their lives this week were from St. Lawrence and aboard the fishing vessel Sarah Anne. (Submitted)

As the St. Lawrence search played out, memories were drawn back to similar stories. In September 2016, four men died off Cape Spear when they went fishing in rough weather; the sinking claimed the lives of three generations of a single family from Shea Heights in St. John's. The subsequent TSB report pointed to poor weather and a lack of distress signals, and also raised questions about the economic pressure of the fishing industry, which draws harvesters to the water during terrible weather.

In June 2015, three men from Southern Harbour died when rough winds in Placentia Bay toppled their open boat as they fished for crab. Again, that element of fishing in rotten conditions.

I also recalled an earlier disaster, in September 2004, off Cape Bonavista, that also brought fatalities to another Newfoundland family. Brothers Joe and Dave Ryan perished when their newly built vessel — the Ryan's Commander — overturned near the coastline; four men were able to escape with their lives.

Designs and safety

The TSB found that the design of the 65-foot Ryan's Commander was a critical part of the disaster, as well as the handling of the vessel at sea. The whole episode revealed a lot about the fishing industry: how ships were being pushed to the envelope to stay within regulated limits (in this case, the 65-foot maximum length) but were becoming jumbo versions of what the law intended.

Residents of St. Lawrence are left looking for answers after the sinking of the Sarah Anne. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The event politicized the Ryan brothers' sister, Johanna Ryan Guy, who has spoken frequently over the years about marine design and safety. "There [were] just enough loopholes that a 65-footer just sailed right through it, and a $1.8-million coffin happened," Ryan Guy told CBC News in a 2006 interview.

Again, we do not yet know what happened to the Sarah Anne.

No doubt the families and neighbours in the Burin Peninsula — an area that has a rich, centuries-long history of fishing, but also has known the sting of marine disasters, from sunken schooners to the Pollux-Truxtun disaster, when American warships were grounded off nearby Chambers Cove in 1942 — want answers to their questions. It's unknown whether they will emerge.

The St. Lawrence tragedy reminds us again that going to sea is risky business, and potentially deadly, and that there are unseen stories behind the seafood that gets dished up the world over.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 


John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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