Nova Scotia

Mental health mayday: fishermen want more support after deaths at sea

Some fishermen are calling for more mental health support after a crewmate dies at sea. They want specialists like grief counsellors on site to help fishing crews and communities cope with the loss of one of their own.

'The first couple days it was very heartwrenching and very hard to deal with'

The number of deaths and injuries in the fishing industry has fallen steadily since 2010. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Nova Scotians who make their living at sea say more robust and immediate mental health support is needed for communities when a fisherman is lost to the crashing waves of the North Atlantic.

The death of lobster fisherman Jimmy Buchanan, 44, is now being investigated by the provincial Labour Department. (Toni-Ann Morash-Buchanan)

A handful of commercial fishermen die at sea each year and some fishermen want specialists like grief counsellors on site in the immediate aftermath to help fishing crews and communities cope with the loss of one of their own. 

"The first couple days it was very heartwrenching and very hard to deal with," said LeBlanc, who was the captain of the Dwayne Allen when a member of his crew went overboard last year.

He and fellow fisherman Alderic Deviller hauled the man back aboard, saving his life, but in the process Deviller had a heart attack and died.

The latest death in the waters off Nova Scotia was Saturday. Lobster fisherman Jimmy Buchanan,44, died after he fell overboard while setting traps. 

Neil LeBlanc said it would be helpful to have grief counsellors and other mental health experts come to communities after a fisherman has died on the job. (Submitted by Neil LeBlanc)

LeBlanc is one of the fishermen who wants more done to help crews after they lose a shipmate. ​

"If they had somebody that could travel, if they had one or two persons located in our province, where something like this has happened where somebody could get some counselling ... where people can be taught how they can deal with some of their stress ... I think it would be a great idea."   

Community needs to ask for help

That service isn't offered by the Maritime Fishermen's Union or the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia. 

The Nova Scotia Health Authority does send counsellors and other mental health workers into communities after a tragedy, but a community leader generally has to come forward and ask for that help.

Fisherman Herb Nash likes to stay close to work. His boat is docked just a few metres from his home in Glace Bay. (David Burke/CBC)

Mary Pyche is a program leader in mental health and addiction with the health authority. 

"When the community says, 'No, this is greater than what we're able to manage amongst ourselves with our current resources,' then we absolutely want to step in and offer any support that we can," said Pyche.

She said individuals can also contact the mental health mobile crisis team for help by calling 1-888-429-8167. The team is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week provincewide. People can also go to their local hospital for help. 

First encounter with death on a boat 

In his 52 years' experience, Herb Nash has never heard of someone coming out to help fishermen deal with death at sea. He said it's time that changed. 

Nash's friend of 33 years died of a heart attack while fishing in 2012. The ship he was on was being captained by Nash's son Charles.   

Glace Bay fisherman Herb Nash said because fishing is one of Nova Scotia's most dangerous industries, the province should provide increased mental health support for fishermen. (CBC)

"My son worked on him for 40 minutes after this happened and...I guess it was even worse where me and the guy that passed away were such good friends. He was all upset and it took the good out of him because it was his first time seeing someone dying right on the boat."   

Fishing deaths on the decline

Nash would like to see the province assign a grief counsellor specifically to help fishermen and their families. He said fishing is one of the most dangerous industries in Nova Scotia and it only makes sense to provide an increased level of support to its workers.   

Since 2010, the number of deaths and injuries while fishing has decreased, according to the Workers Compensation Board of Nova Scotia. In 2010 seven people died while fishing but in 2015 that number fell to three. There were 351 injuries while fishing in 2010 compared to 224 six years later. 

The Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia said increased safety education and training contributed to the decrease. 

While the death rate may be dropping, it isn't enough to keep fisherman Neil LeBlanc from wanting out. He's fishing to pay the bills while he establishes his own business — an indoor worm farm. 

"I wish I wasn't fishing," said LeBlanc, "I don't like the dangers of it, I don't like a lot of stuff about it. To me fishing has become not fun anymore."