Fishermen train for a rescue in an industry full of danger

The Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia has been travelling across the province this year teaching fishermen how to stay safe while out on the water.

Safety a concern as lobster season in southwest Nova Scotia approaches

The CBC's Brett Ruskin participates in 'man overboard' training in Port Mouton, N.S., supervised by the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

The thick red neoprene of my survival suit pressed my nose flat against my face, as I flopped into the makeshift rescue rig.

A winch above strained to pull me from the dark water.

The rope snapped. I plunged back down, spat out salty water and bobbed to the surface.

"And that's why we do the drills," said Matthew Duffy, a safety advisor with the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia.

Duffy stood on the boat above me in Port Mouton, N.S., next to a sheepish captain who later vowed to buy a new rope. On an adjacent wharf, dozens of fishermen watched our mock rescue.

Captain Gordon Burgess tosses down a new rope after his main rope used to haul up the rescue rig snapped. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

The Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia has met with fishermen across the province this summer. The organization visits ports to demonstrate rescue techniques, encourage proper equipment care and promote safe practices at sea.

The work comes as last month the Transportation Safety Board of Canada sounded the alarm over what it called the fishing industry's "disturbing safety record."

At least seventeen people have died so far this year in the commercial fishery, the worst year since 2004, and the chair of the safety board has said the "industry's safety culture still has a long way to go."

Safety has also been a growing concern in the southwest Nova Scotia lobster industry, the most lucrative lobster fishery in Canada. The season was due to begin Monday, but was delayed due to high winds.

Ruskin puts on a survival suit under the supervision of Matthew Duffy with the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia. Fishermen watch the mock rescue exercise. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Simple equipment changes can save lives, said Duffy.

"The most common thing we see is the life ring without the rope tied to it," he said. "Or the rope's tied so tightly that they spend a lot of time untying it."

That means the life ring won't get to the victim in time, or it will be thrown with no way to retrieve it.

Duffy shares life-saving techniques with a group of fishermen in Port Mouton. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

He also said he's seen rescue ladders that don't reach all the way to the water line when installed on the side of the boat.

But there is some good news. Duffy said he's seeing more fishermen wearing their personal flotation devices (PFDs).

"You're seeing people with the PFDs and they're pretty dirty and full of fish guts, so it shows that they are wearing them."

If a crew member goes overboard and falls unconscious or is injured, the winch rescue may not be an option.

In that case, Duffy and the crew of Gordon Burgess's boat lowered a net into the water. The net had horizontal ribs to help it keep its shape.

The victim swims or is pulled into the net. Then, by hauling up one side, the victim is rolled up along the side of the boat.

Duffy said each fishing boat is required to have a list of gear to rescue people who fall overboard.

Ruskin gets hauled back aboard a fishing boat while participating in the man overboard rescue. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

About the Author

Brett Ruskin

Reporter/Videojournalist

Brett Ruskin is a reporter and videojournalist covering everything from local breaking news to national issues. He's based in Halifax.