Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia to enforce mandatory life-jacket rules for fishermen

Officials with Nova Scotia's Labour Department will be hitting wharves and docks in 2016 to remind commercial fishermen that wearing a life-jacket at sea is the law in this province.

A fisherman thrown over on Dumping Day recounts how a life-jacket helped save him

Nate King, 24, went overboard on Dumping Day 2015 and was wearing a life-jacket at the time, which saved his life. (CBC)

Officials with Nova Scotia's Labour Department will be hitting wharves and docks in 2016 to remind commercial fishermen that wearing a life-jacket at sea is the law in this province.

"We are going to be seeing what the compliance level is and offering advice as to what they should wear, showing them the products that are out for personal floatation devices and let them know about our regulations," said Tom LeBlanc, the department's northern regional director. 

The campaign will start on the Northumberland Strait and western Cape Breton.

"Over the next couple of years we are going to be taking a bit stronger approach where we will not only be asking them to wear them, we will be expecting them to be wearing them," LeBlanc told CBC News.

One fisherman's story

Nate King doesn't need convincing.

The 24-year-old deckhand was one of two lobster fishermen thrown overboard from the Nomada Queen on Nov. 30, 64 kilometres off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. Both survived their Dumping Day disaster.

"It's like any job. You're used to it, the same things go on year after year but the unexpected can go on at any given time. We were just lucky that everyone was actually wearing their life-jackets. A lot of people still don't," King said. 

King was standing where the yellow traps are near the stern. The side rail collapsed and he went overboard. (Submitted by Nate King)

King was in the stern standing on a stack of 270 lobster traps unloading the first trawl when a side rail collapsed. It threw dozens of pots, lines, anchors, floats, King and a fellow crewman into the near-freezing water.

"I landed in the gear and there was something around my foot. It was pulling me down. All I saw was bubbles," King recalled during a break at a meeting Thursday of the Nova Scotia Fisheries Safety Association, where he was a featured speaker.

"I had a knife in my boot. I don't know what was dragging me, or if anything was. But I hacked the boots to pieces and as soon as I got my foot free my life jacket inflated and pulled me up."

King had also taken a marine emergency course that helped in his moment of crisis. He was aware of hypothermia and cold-water shock.  

"It does come in handy when you need it, and if you don't have it, it's too late," he said. 

Redesigning life-jackets for fishermen

Life-jacket manufacturer Mustang Survival says it has redesigned one of its PFDs to accommodate multiple concerns from the fishing industry.

"We have provided a product that is lighter and more compact so fishermen could be more comfortable," said regional sales manager Robert Culling.

The model distributes weight to avoid neck fatigue, includes a back feature that wicks moisture and a relocated secondary release cord used to inflate the jacket. The cord had previously dangled from the bottom of the jacket where it could catch on lobster or crab traps.

They cost under $300 each.

Robert Culling, of Mustang Survival, stands with fishermen Nate King (right) after presenting him with a life-jacket redesigned to suit fishermen. (CBC)

Earlier this year, the Gulf Fishermen's Association said it was buying 1,038 of the PFDs and giving two to each of its members.

One of Nova Scotia's biggest seafood companies, Comeau's Sea Foods Ltd. of Saulnierville, N.S., has also bought hundreds of life-jackets for crews.

'One day at a time'

Noël Després, the president of Comeau's Sea Foods, said his company is trying to instill a culture of safety into the organization. He also happens to be the chair of the province's safety association.

He's heartened by King's survival story.

"He came through. One of our first mandates was to encourage their use. He had his on and he's here," Després said.

The industry veteran acknowledges that convincing fishermen to use life-jackets remains a work in progress.

"One day at a time. One company at a time. You can't snap your fingers," he said. 

A grimmer reason to use life-jackets

Another far grimmer reason for their use is to preserve a body to take home to loved ones in cases where a fisherman perishes after going overboard.

"We've had wives that had lost members to the ocean and there was no — they couldn't have closure because they never found the body," Després said.

Earlier this year, Transport Canada unveiled stricter fishing vessel safety regulations in an effort to reduce loss of life.

On average, 13 fishermen die each year in Canada.

Nate King took this photo on his iPhone during his rescue on Dumping Day 2015. (Submitted by Nate King)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

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