Larry Tremblett knows a thing or two about the dangers of making a living at sea. It gives him all the more reason to be upset about the federal Conservative government’s plan to shut down the St. John’s Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre.
“When you go out on the ocean now, there’s any number of things that can happen, and they can happen in the blink of an eye,” said the Bonavista fisherman.
On April 17, 1985, Tremblett was retrieving herring nets in a small boat with his brother, Lloyd.
“One minute we were hauling herring nets, and then 20 seconds from that the boat was full of water and we were bottom-up with the two of us in the water. I managed to scramble back aboard the boat, but my brother wasn’t able to make it.”
The nature of the incident, in which the small boat overturned, prevented him from seeking help. Larry Tremblett was up to his waist in water and left stranded for five hours before people aboard another boat saw what had happened and came to rescue him.
He was later told in hospital that had he remained in the ocean for 10 more minutes, he may have met the same fate as his brother.
“Whether you’re 200 feet from shore or 200 miles, it happens, just like that. … Minutes count for this.”
Tremblett, who has been fishing for over 30 years, firmly believes that boats in distress will have a better chance of receiving the timely help they need if co-ordinating services remain available in St. John’s, where staff with local knowledge can better assist rescue efforts.
The sub-centre in St. John’s provides search and rescue co-ordination, aids communication efforts and contributes local knowledge to support the work of other centres. The federal government’s plan would shift those responsibilities to centres in Halifax and Trenton, Ont.
“Everyone in Newfoundland needs to cause one big stink on this,” said Tremblett, adding he is disappointed in Labrador cabinet minister Peter Penashue’s defence of the cuts.
Penashue, speaking in St. John’s on Tuesday, said that cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) were necessary to reduce the deficit. In a press release the following day, he said the closure of the sub-centre would not affect the safety and security of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
Reportedly 12 employees in St. John’s will be affect by the closure, which is part of $56 million in cuts made to DFO’s budget in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“There’s a damn lot of things they can cut back on rather than search and rescue,” said Tremblett.
“One minute we were hauling herring nets, and then 20 seconds from that the boat was full of water and we were bottom-up with the two of us in the water. I managed to scramble back aboard the boat, but my brother wasn’t able to make it.” - Larry Tremblett
The federal government has developed new regulations in recent years affecting fish harvesters, including one that requires them to obtain a Maritime Radio Operators certificate.
“Fishermen have no problem with doing training courses and stuff like that with regards to safety, but while we’re out there doing it, we want them to back us up,” Tremblett said.
Meanwhile, unions and politicians continue to voice opposition to the closure of the St. John’s sub-centre. Carol Furlong, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, said her union will fight all cuts to public services in the province.
“We are in disbelief that the Harper government would so callously move communications services with maritime rescue to the mainland, knowing this province’s history with loss of life on our waters,” said Furlong, who was also critical of tax cuts to large businesses announced in Monday’s federal budget.
Liberal MP Judy Foote has also aired her disapproval with the cuts.
“Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have made their living at sea for centuries and this latest decision clearly shows the reckless disregard the Harper government holds for maritime safety,” she said in a press release Thursday.
The Random-Burin-St. George’s MP highlighted investments in new prisons and fighter jets as misplaced priorities for the federal Conservatives.
A union representing offshore workers, many of whom remain mindful of the March 12, 2009 Cougar helicopter crash that killed 17 passengers en route to an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland, also came out against the planned shutdown of the St. John’s rescue centre.
“Following the Cougar crash of 2009, the shortcomings of the search and rescue system have become apparent through the Wells inquiry,” said Chuck Shewfelt, Atlantic vice-president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.
“Although there have been some improvements, it makes no sense to start taking steps backwards by removing the local expertise present in the St. John’s centre. If anything, we need more resources, not less, at the search and rescue station.”
The St. John’s sub-centre is responsible for 900,000 square kilometres of ocean and 28,956 kilometres of coastline, and responds to 500 incidents involving nearly 3,000 people on an annual basis.