The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has identified an industry-wide surveillance issue following its investigation into the December 2020 fatal sinking of the scallop boat Chief William Saulis off the coast of Digby.

In a media release Wednesday, the TSB described commercial fishing as one of the most hazardous occupations in the country. About 11 fish harvesters die every year. 

The Dec. 15, 2020 sinking 12 nautical miles off the Digby coast resulted in the death of one crew member whose body was recovered 10 and a half hours after the vessel’s emergency beacon was activated. The boat’s other five crew members are still classified as missing. 

‘How many more people have to be lost at sea’

“Over the past 30 years, the TSB has been sounding the alarm over the numerous safety deficiencies that continue to put at risk the lives of Canadian fish harvesters,” TSB chair Kathy Fox said in the release. 

“Safety is a shared responsibility. Too many fish harvesters still don’t make it home from what could have been a preventable accident. How many more people have to be lost at sea before these changes are made?’’

As a result of its investigation, the TSB is issuing a recommendation to Transport Canada. It recommends the Department of Transport “ensure that each inspection of a commercial fishing vessel verifies that each required written safety procedure is available to the crew and that the crew are knowledgeable of these procedures.”

‘Manuals may be incomplete if based on Transport Canada templates’

In its report, The TSB noted that written safety procedures intended to familiarize vessel crews with operational and emergency activities are required by a vessel’s authorized representative. 

While the vessel’s owner, Yarmouth Sea Products Limited, had provided a manual, the TSB found most of the templates were based on ones provided by Transport Canada. The investigation found those templates did not include all procedures required by regulation. 

“As seen with the Chief William Saulis, many company manuals may be incomplete if based mostly on these Transport Canada templates,” the TSB noted. 

“Without Transport Canada oversight to validate that the written procedures required by regulation on board fishing vessels have been developed and that crew are knowledgeable of their content, there is a risk that fishing operations will continue without guidance critical to support the safety of the crew and the vessel.”

The TSB continued that the “ongoing lack of regulatory oversight” means fishing crews are “routinely operating on vessels without even knowing how to stay safe or how to respond when things go wrong.”

A yellow and white map showing the fishing grounds, last known vessel monitoring system (VMS) signal, and an inset image on the top left shows the location on Google Maps.
Area of the fatal sinking, showing the fishing grounds and the position of the last known vessel monitoring system (VMS) signal from the vessel. Credit: Main image: Canadian Hydrographic Service charts, with TSB annotations. Source of inset image: Google Earth, with TSB annotations

Other findings:

Among the findings in its report published Wednesday that examined the incident’s causes and contributing factors, the TSB outlined the following: 

Without a formal stability assessment, the crew made operating decisions that likely affected the vessel’s stability without sufficient knowledge of the vessel’s safe operating limits. 

The vessel departed the fishing grounds with unshucked scallops on deck and the freeing ports were likely covered either mechanically or by scallops so that water from the heavy beam sea also accumulated on deck. The resulting free surface effect from shifting scallops and water and the rolling motion from the heavy beam sea likely caused the vessel to capsize and sink.

The ingress rate and cold temperature of the water, fatigue, being woken from sleep, darkness, stress response, and the difficult-to-access escape routes combined to significantly affect survivability.

The TSB also outlined that the following were found not to be a factor in this incident, but could have “adverse consequences in future occurrences.” 

If a company does not identify hazards specific to the context and nature of operations and assess their risks using a guided process, then fish harvesters will be left without appropriate guidance and safe work practices for mitigating hazards effectively.

If guidance provided by Transport Canada for written safety procedures required by the Fishing Vessel Safety Regulations, including templates, only partially covers regulatory requirements for effective safety procedures, there is a risk that organizations will not develop complete written safety procedures. 

If the vessel certification process does not identify gaps in safety procedures and provide education, there is a risk that masters, owners, and others filling the role of AR will allow vessels to operate without effective safe work practices.

The TSB also noted that the Chief William Saulis fatal sinking raises concerns around four “systemic safety issues” identified on its watchlist: regulatory surveillance, commercial fishing safety, fatigue management, and safety management. 

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Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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