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Report released about Shea Heights fishermen’s tragedy

The overturned boat Pop’s Pride was recovered off Cape Spear in September 2016 and transported to the Coast Guard base on the Southside Road.
The overturned boat Pop’s Pride was recovered off Cape Spear in September 2016 and transported to the Coast Guard base on the Southside Road. - FILE

Transportation Safety Board says bad weather, safety issues led to loss of four when small boat sank

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) released its report Monday about the sinking of the 22-foot open boat Pop’s Pride and the loss of four Shea Heights fishermen in September 2016.

The findings have confirmed what many in the tight-knit St. John’s community have believed since the accident — the fishermen went out that morning in questionable weather conditions; the way the cod stewardship fishery was set up caused fishermen to take risks in order to land their weekly quotas; and small fishing vessels do not have sufficient communication and safety equipment onboard.

The four Shea Heights fishermen, including three generations of the Walsh family — Eugene, Keith and Keith Jr. — and close friend Billy Humby, were lost after their boat overturned off the coast of Cape Spear.

“The investigation determined that the Pop’s Pride proceeded in weather conditions beyond the normal operating conditions of an open fishing vessel,” a news release with the report states. “The crew’s decision to sail in adverse weather and sea conditions was likely influenced by several factors related to fisheries resource management measures and economic pressures. One such factor was the licence requirement to attend to the fishing gear every 48 hours in order to ensure fresh product and minimize waste.

“Although the Newfoundland and Labrador Fishery Regulations provide for extensions under exceptional circumstances beyond the fisherman’s control, like inclement weather, this information is not included in the licence conditions document for cod fishing issued by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Another factor that may have influenced the crew’s decision is the weekly fishing quota with no end-of-season date, which was introduced in 2016. Because the closing date was not predetermined, the season could close at any time and, as a result, the crew was likely highly motivated to meet their weekly quota. If fish harvesting measures do not take into account the safety impact on fishermen, there is a risk that they will fish in conditions they would otherwise avoid, thereby compromising the safety of the vessel and crew.

“The investigation also determined that the Pop’s Pride did not have an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), nor was it required by regulation to carry one.”

About 6:55 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2016, the Pop’s Pride left the small boat basin at the mouth of St. John’s harbour and headed east toward the location where the fishermen had their gillnets set off Cape Spear.

About 9 a.m., crew on a passing fishing vessel witnessed the boat hauling the gillnets, and a second fishing vessel noticed the Pop’s Pride around 9:30 a.m. with the gillnets onboard. The crew were to bring the gillnets ashore that day, as two of the crew members had planned to be out of the province the rest of the week.

At 3:39 p.m., the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax received a report from family members and other fishermen that the boat was overdue and could not be contacted.

A number of vessels were tasked to start a search, and were later joined by a search and rescue Cormorant helicopter and Hercules aircraft.

At 5:25 p.m., one of the fishing vessels participating in the search recovered a body. The same vessel recovered a second body at 7:08 p.m. The other two crew members were never found and are presumed drowned.

The boat was later recovered along with the fishing gear.

The report states that weather conditions recorded that day included winds of 25 to 30 knots from the west-southwest throughout the morning, gusting to 33 knots in the early afternoon. Wave heights peaked at two metres.

There is also a known localized effect between Cape Spear and St. John’s that causes the wind speed to increase as it funnels down through the valleys on either side of Blackhead. As a result, vessels crossing the small bays on either side of Blackhead experience wind gusts, rougher seas, and increased spray. On the day of the accident, crews on larger fishing vessels returning to St. John’s from the fishing grounds around Cape Spear experienced the effect, taking spray across their wheelhouse windows in near gale-force winds.

“After the gillnets were recovered (by the Pop’s Pride crew) the vessel was heavily loaded with the four nets, an estimated 700 pounds of catch, and four crew members,” the report noted. “This reduced the vessel’s freeboard. On the way back, there was a 25- to 30-knot wind and seas of up to two metres that hit the vessel on its port side.

“At some point, the vessel swamped and sank, leaving the four crew members in the water.”

The investigation determined that this was likely caused by one of two scenarios: the vessel took significant spray as it travelled past Blackhead due to the localized effect that increased the wind and spray in that area. The spray would have caused water to accumulate in the vessel below the gillnets and fish on board. If the crew had attempted to use the planing method to remove water from the vessel, it would likely have been ineffective, given the vessel’s loaded condition and the sea state. As the water on board increased, the vessel’s freeboard would have been further reduced, causing it to eventually swamp and sink, and the vessel may have suddenly taken a large wave over the gunwale, causing it to instantly swamp and sink.

“The vessel did not float at the surface of the water because it lacked inherent buoyancy in its design and construction. Because no distress signals were transmitted, no rescue efforts were initiated until the vessel was reported overdue. There were four cellphones on board, but there was likely no time to issue a call. There was no emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) or very high frequency (VHF) radiotelephone on board.”

The board notes it has made a number of recommendations over time to address the safety risks highlighted in the report.

Two recommendations call on Transport Canada to work to enhance safety culture within the fishing industry through greater collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the fishing industry and training institutions.

Commercial fishing safety has been on the board’s watch list since 2010.

“As this tragic accident demonstrates, concerns remain about the use and availability of lifesaving appliances on board, such as EPIRBs, and about unsafe operating practices,” the report states. “Although fisheries resource management requirements do not supersede the master’s responsibility and sound judgment in ensuring a safe voyage, these requirements should not increase pressures on harvesters that may lead to unsafe fishing operations.”

The Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL) says the report confirms that the tragedy was the result of Department of Fisheries and Oceans policy.

Jason Sullivan, captain of FISH-NL’s under-40-foot fleet, stated in a news release that fishermen are dying because of restrictive policies.

Sullivan stated that while the Pop Pride’s skipper was allowed to buddy-up on a bigger, safer boat to catch his crab quota earlier in the year, it was not allowed in the cod fishery.

“Safety must be the No. 1 consideration at all times, and this is yet another example of the fact that it isn’t,” Sullivan said. “The harvesting rules introduced in the 2016 northern cod stewardship fishery — including weekly limits — did not take safety into account, increasing the risk that harvesters would fish in conditions they would otherwise avoid.”

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