The hidden danger of Dumping Day in Nova Scotia
Dozens of boats in one spot hamper search and rescue efforts
On Dumping Day, the hundreds of fishing boats that hit the water at the start of lobster season to set their traps can act as camouflage for a vessel in distress and hinder search and rescue efforts.
In 2015, that camouflage led search and rescue technicians to jump out of a plane and miss a boat that needed their help, according to the Transportation Safety Board (TSB).
Back on Nov. 30, 2015, the Royal Canadian Air Force's Joint Rescue Coordination Centre dispatched a Hercules plane and Cormorant helicopter after two boats ran into trouble off Nova Scotia's southwestern shore.
The Cormorant and its crew managed to rescue two men who had fallen overboard from one vessel.
The Hercules was assigned to help the fishing boat Cock-a-Wit-Lady where another man had gone overboard. Fisherman Keith Stubbert became tangled in ropes attached to lobster traps and was dragged into the sea.
Flying overhead, it was hard for the crew of the Hercules to determine exactly which boat was in trouble, said Christopher Morrow, a TSB senior investigator. He investigated the accident on the Cock-a-Wit Lady and recently filed a report on what happened.
TSB works to identify the causes and contributing factors involved with transportation incidents. It does not assign fault or determine criminal liability.
About 40 boats with a similar design to the Cock-a-Wit Lady were within a 5.6-kilometre radius at the time the Hercules arrived in the area.
"With this amount of boats in the area all at the same time, which is kind of unique to Dumping Day, it can be difficult. There are identification numbers on top of the wheelhouse of these vessels, but from certain aspects they cannot be seen from a great distance," he said.
In his report, Morrow determined that if rescue crews can't accurately identify a vessel in distress from above, critical search and rescue operations may be delayed.
Perfect storm of complications
There were multiple factors complicating the rescue efforts.
Morrow told CBC News that as fishermen work to save their comrades in distress, fishermen aren't likely thinking about how boats look similar from the sky and the need to fire off a flare to make a vessel stand out.
The crew of the Cock-a-Wit Lady did nothing to distinguish it from the other boats in the area.
The high volume of radio traffic at the time, combined with the aerial manoeuvres of the plane, also made it difficult to pinpoint where the boat was, said Morrow.
Missed target by 3.7 km
Search crews asked the Cock-a-Wit Lady to turn to port so they could spot it. No ship followed that instruction, but one did turn to starboard. The search and rescue technicians decided it could be the vessel in distress and jumped out of the plane toward it.
They hit the water about 3.7 kilometres away from the Cock-a-Wit Lady. A coast guard ship had to pick up the technicians and take them to the boat.
By the time the crew of the Cock-a-Wit Lady hauled fisherman Keith Stubbert aboard, he had been underwater for 10 minutes. He was dead when the rescue workers arrived.
Morrow said the safety board rarely comes across a case where it's difficult to identify a ship in distress.
"A lot of time when a vessel is in distress, there's not as much company, they're sort of out on their own ... to have the big crowds like that, like you have on Dumping Day, doesn't happen everyday."
TSB doesn't believe the delayed arrival of the search and rescue technicians had any impact on Stubbert's rescue.
Lack of emergency preparedness
The safety board did find the crew of the Cock-a-Wit Lady could have done more to prepare for emergencies, like run drills so everyone would know what their role was during a crisis.
The Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia is running programs to make sure fishermen will be safe on the water. It's helping fishermen run emergency drills and become familiar with their emergency equipment.
"I think it's really important to recognize the tremendous effort that's being put into improving safety by all the people in the industry. We've got a long way to go yet, but we're seeing improvement. It's really exciting," said Stewart Franck, the executive director of the association, told CBC News in January.