Research ship forced to return after crew falls ill

Published on May 30, 2014
The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Teleost, a fisheries research ship, in St. John’s harbour Tuesday. The vessel had to interrupt its spring fisheries survey and return to port after crew members became ill. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

The annual multi-fish species spring survey carried out by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) off the coast of Newfoundland had to be interrupted this year due to severe illness among the research ship’s crew.

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Teleost returned from sea last weekend after a number of its crew members became too ill to carry out their duties, The Telegram has learned.

When The Telegram contacted DFO, it received an emailed response saying the Teleost returned to port on Sunday to drop off sick crew members and returned to its normal program on Tuesday.

“The sick crew members experienced flu-like symptoms. While some crew members visited emergency, there was no hospitalization required,” the statement read.

“Coast guard has taken all precautions to deep clean and disinfect the vessel before allowing crew back on board. The bathrooms, cabin, galley, lounges, mess and common areas have all been disinfected, and the laundry has been sent out to be professionally cleaned.”

The statement also noted that about three years ago, the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Alfred Needler experienced a similar incident.

The Teleost and Alfred Needler are large, multi-tasked offshore science vessels capable of extended missions of four to six weeks. They are equipped with wet labs and are capable of trawl surveys, water column sampling and conducting programs in ice-infested waters. The Teleost was launched in 1988. The Alfred Needler was launched in 1982. Both are slated to be replaced with new vessels through the Canadian Coast Guard’s fleet renewal program.

“It is not uncommon for flu-like symptoms to be spread in close living quarters aboard vessels through contact with infected surfaces,” the statement read.

“All coast guard ships have been reminded to take the necessary precautions during the flu season.”

A source, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal, told The Telegram cleanliness on the ship has been slipping in recent years and morale on board has suffered as a result.

The response from DFO, however, said the health and safety of all crew is top priority for the Canadian Coast Guard.

“Health Canada did not visit the vessel and no quarantine was required,” the email stated.

“Health Canada recommended a stool sample be taken from an ill crew member in order to rule out a food-borne virus. Additionally, they provided advice on how to deep clean and disinfect the vessel.

“No scientists became ill and the science program resumed Tuesday, May 27 as planned.”

Wayne Fagan, regional vice-president Atlantic of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, which represents crew on the ship, said he only learned of the incident Wednesday.

“They had some type of virus on the vessel, but didn’t specifically say what type of virus it was, but it knocked (crewmembers) right out, apparently,” he said. “Five or six crewmembers, I was told.

“Apparently they came in and took a certain number of crew off, sailed again and had to come back in again and get the vessel cleaned out.”

Fagan noted more questions will be asked about the incident during an upcoming occupational health and safety meeting.

The Canadian Merchant Service Guild, a national association that represents ships’ officers, including those of coast guard vessels, did not want to comment when its St. John’s office was contacted Thursday about what happened on the Teleost.

According to DFO’s website, some of the most valuable scientific information for the management of the fisheries is obtained during the multi-species surveys, which the department has been conducting off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador since the 1950s.

Originally directed at specific commercial species such as cod, flounder and yellowtail, more species have been added over the years. DFO’s current program provides continuous baseline data on the abundance and distribution of many major commercial fish and shellfish species, dating back to the early 1970s.

“This is critical information, providing nothing less than the very foundation for any efforts to determine trends in population, assess stocks, set catch levels, and monitor the effects of fishing pressures on various stocks,” the website states.