After N.S. fishing disaster, officials move to ramp up safety checks

On the eve of the most lucrative fishery in Canada, federal and provincial authorities are ramping up fishing vessel inspections in Nova Scotia, seeking proof of safety procedures and annual inspections of hoists and other lifting devices.

Lobster season in southwest Nova Scotia opens in two weeks.

Some of the increased scrutiny is being attributed to the sinking of the Chief William Saulis, a scallop dragger that went down in heavy seas near Digby in December 2020. All six men on board died.

Transport Canada has served notice that its marine inspectors want to see written safety procedures on board and proof crew members are familiar with them.

“Failure will result in a deficiency notice or detention of the vessel,” says spokesperson Sau Sau Liu.

In addition to written procedures, Transport Canada inspectors will be looking for records of safety drills conducted on board the vessels, and that crew members have participated in those drills.

Lack of procedure

The department has been briefing inshore lobster groups on its expectations.

A lack of procedures was cited among the failures noted in a Transportation Safety Board marine safety investigation released in March on the Saulis sinking. It noted “no records of drills or familiarisation were available for the Chief William Saulis.”

“Most importantly for this occurrence, there were no procedures for fishing operations, such as loading, unloading, and stowage, and other operations. Such procedures are important for evaluating risks to stability and ensuring that masters have guidance to complete operations in accordance with safe work practices.”

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Dylan Buchanan, executive director of the seafood industry-sponsored FishSafeNS, says Transport Canada is responding to the tragedy with measures that make sense.

“They have outlined what they’re looking for and they’ve been very forthcoming with fishers, explaining what exactly they will be checking and what is expected of fishers,” Buchanan said.

“Doing your drills, we think, is very important simply because stuff can happen very quickly and the more practice you do, the better prepared you are when the situation happens.”

Proof of annual inspections sought

In a separate initiative, the occupational health and safety division of the Nova Scotia Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration is seeking proof of annual inspections of hoists on board fishing vessels.

The requirement has been in regulations for years, but never exercised for lobster vessels.

The department says its fishing safety initiatives have recently focused on measures to reduce the risk of drowning.

WATCH | TSB says fatal sinking was preventable:

Fatal sinking of fishing boat could have been prevented: TSB report

Featured VideoThe fatal sinking of a Nova Scotia scallop dragger in December 2020 could have been prevented if the boat had undergone a stability test, says a report from the Transportation Safety Board.

Dan Fleck of the Brazil Rock Lobster Association, which represents harvesters in southwest Nova Scotia, agrees safety is paramount. But he said the fleet has been caught by surprise on the hoist certification requirement.

“It’s never been discussed with captains. It’s never been noted and captains are receiving warnings with information that upon further inspection, if this situation hasn’t been remedied, charges may follow,” Fleck said.

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Like Buchanan, Fleck said the Transport Canada emphasis on safety procedures is the result of the Saulis tragedy. Transport Canada will only say it follows “recent incidents and recommendations from the Transportation Safety Board.”

More time needed for compliance

But both men are asking the province for more time to educate inshore fishermen on how they can comply with annual inspection and prove their hoists meet requirements.

“There’s so many different lifting and hoisting devices on vessels and some vessels that take part in multiple fisheries might have up to three different types of haulers or hoists that they deal with. We really think there needs to be a real definition of what is going to be looked at,” says Buchanan.

The Brazil Rock Lobster Association is asking Nova Scotia’s Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration to accept Transport Canada certified captains as “competent authorities” to provide hoist inspection because they are required to have rigging training.

The department declined to address that request when asked, nor would it make anyone available to speak on its efforts.

“The department has been promoting this hoist safety requirement and working with the sector to assist in awareness and identify means to comply,” spokesperson Amanda Silliker said in a statement.

“The Department is focused on working with the sector to come into compliance. Enforcement is normally used in cases where there is imminent danger or when there isn’t a willingness to comply.”

Requirements an additional stress

Silliker said an officer was visiting docks last week and provided awareness information to fishers about hoist safety but no orders or warnings were issued related to hoists. A warning was issued in relation to personal floatation devices.

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Fleck said the hoist requirements are an additional stress just weeks before the opening of the southwestern Nova Scotia lobster season, when hundreds of boats will head to sea.

“They’re worried about everything else and now they’re going to have a labour inspector come along and question that hoist you’ve been using for 10, 15, 20, 30 years. Your competence,” he said.

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