Lost at sea

Twenty-five years ago, there was a devastating explosion on Leonard LeBlanc’s fishing boat in Cheticamp, N.S., that killed his five-year-old son. An accumulation of gas fumes under the floor caused the explosion that was heard 10 miles away. There were nine people on the boat at the time, and some were so badly burned the skin was “peeling off their bodies and dripping” while others had bones sticking out of their skin, says LeBlanc.

“I put a lifejacket on my brother-in-law and put him overboard with his legs dangling like a puppet… As I was going back into the wheelhouse, I looked down and saw my sister’s hair on the cover of the engine box — that’s all I could see — and then I jumped overboard with her.”

LeBlanc’s brother-in-law sustained a massive leg injury and his sister had memory loss for about one year. But LeBlanc himself suffered only a bit of whiplash.

“I literally walked through flames and didn’t come out with a scratch,” he says.

Since then, LeBlanc has devoted himself to making sure no one has to go through the pain he did. He is the president of the Gulf of Nova Scotia Fishermen’s Coalition and he is striving to change the culture of safety in the industry, starting in his own backyard.

Fishing is one of the most dangerous industries in Nova Scotia. A fisher in the province is 46 times more likely to suffer an acute fatality than a worker in any other industry, according to the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia (WCB).

Since 2010, the industry has seen 23 acute fatalities — including one so far in 2015. Nationally, an average of 11 people die in commercial fishing accidents each year, according to the federal Transportation Safety Board (TSB) — and about five of those occur in Nova Scotia.

To encourage a culture shift among the provincial fishing industry, the Safe at Sea Alliance was born, made up of government, associations, fishers, their families and communities. The alliance came about in 2013 after five men on the Miss Ally were lost at sea. The crew had been gone for five days to fish for halibut when their vessel ran into trouble during a storm. The boat capsized off southwest Nova Scotia after being slammed by a wall of water nearly 20 metres high. The bodies of the five men were never recovered.

“It really seemed to be one of those moments in time where we thought, as a community, as a province, we just can’t continue to go forward the way things have gone in the past. It was that line in the sand moment where we knew it was time to actually do something to have a different kind of future,” says Shelley Rowan, vice-president of prevention and service delivery at the WCB, which is a member of the Safe at Sea Alliance.

One key initiative of the alliance is the Fishing Safety Action Plan, which will identify how to improve safety within the industry. The plan is expected to be launched this summer.

One of the biggest causes of fatalities in the fishing industry is falls overboard. Across Canada, 25 per cent of all fishing fatalities result from falling overboard and in some cases the inability to re-board the vessel, according to a 2013 marine investigation report by the TSB. The report says the number of accidents involving loss of life on fishing vessels in Canada remains too high, and it calls on government and leaders in the fishing community to work together to improve safety.

Fishers are not only working on a surface that is always wet, and sometimes oily, they are grappling with unsteady footing as the boat moves with the current and waves.

“I equate it with, you take a normal job where someone might be doing some sort of a process in a plant or industry somewhere and take that same person and have them do that same job on a moving tilt-a-whirl at the local fair,” says Stewart Franck, executive director of the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia, which is a member of the Safe at Sea Alliance. “That puts it into perspective. How are you going to stay upright let alone do your job?”

The main risk factors for falls overboard in lobster fishing are weather conditions, working methods and the crew’s attitudes and behaviours, according to a study by the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST) in Montreal.

Fishers need to know what operations on the vessel might contribute to falls overboard. For example, properly arranging the rope on the deck when loading the traps is “imperative to avoid the risks of being dragged in,” found the IRSST report. Systematically arranging the traps and properly storing buoys are other preventive measures.

Falling overboard is the number 1 concern when it comes to fishing fatalities in British Columbia, says Gina McKay, recently retired program manager at Richmond, B.C.-based Fish SAFE, a provincial industry-driven program for improving safety on commercial fishing vessels.

One reason why falling overboard results in fatalities is because many fishers are not wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs).

To address this in a fun yet compelling way, Fish SAFE launched the “Real Fishermen Wear PFDs” poster campaign, showcasing tough fishermen wearing PFDs — including a big, burley man in a pink lifejacket.

Nova Scotia’s Safe at Sea Alliance adopted a similar program, but with a more serious tone. The alliance’s “Who Do You Wear Your PFD For?” campaign called on fishers to think of their friends and family members who want them to work safely.

The Safe at Sea Alliance is trying to create a “social movement” and make wearing PFDs more acceptable, says Franck. Although there is still a long way to go, the mindset really is shifting.

“There was a time when we got a lot of backlash even at the mention of personal flotation devices and sometimes it wasn’t seen to be cool to be wearing a PFD and you might be called out as a wimp or something like that,” he says. “Now we’re finding the shift is the captain is saying ‘If you’re going to work for me, you’re going to come aboard my boat, you’re going to have a PFD on — or else stay on the wharf.’”

The initiative was so successful that at the start of lobster season in November, retailers in southwestern Nova Scotia couldn’t keep their shelves stocked with PFDs — sales in that area increased by 100 per cent in 2014.

But a PFD is only part of the solution. If a fisher falls overboard, her crew members need to know how to bring her to safety — this is where emergency drills come in. Nova Scotia’s Fishing Safety Action Plan identifies safety drills as a key component to drive safety in the industry.

Before the start of fishing season, many fishers across the country participate in emergency drills. A “man overboard” drill allows workers to practice throwing a life ring, lowering a boarding ladder or using a retrieval device to safely bring a crew member back on board.

“But all those things have to be done prior to any incident,” says McKay. “(Fishers) have to be well versed and well practiced.”

Fish SAFE makes an event out of the drills with competitions and prizes at the wharf.

The drills are also effective in making fishers realize they may be missing key pieces of equipment on their boats, such as a boarding ladder or other life-saving devices.

“I met a guy who watched his brother drown because he couldn’t bring him into the boat,” says LeBlanc. “His brother weighed over 300 pounds and he couldn’t lift him. That could have been avoided by having a simple lift off the lobster trap hauler.”

One of the most important elements for emergency response is making sure all fishers know where their equipment is and have easy access to it.

“Lots of folks when they set things up made sure they had the right equipment and tools as required by the regulations, but over time you lose track of: Where is it? How quickly can I get it? What do I use it for?” says Rowan. “The drills actually require people on the vessels to do that in real time.”

Capsizing too common

Stability problems is one of the top two reasons for fatalities at sea (the other being falls overboard), according to the TSB report. Watertight integrity, downflooding, raised centre of gravity, overloading and vessel modifications are all grouped under “stability.”

There are many examples of boats capsizing where stability was an issue, including when the Cap Rouge II capsized off the mouth of the Fraser River in B.C. in 2002, killing five people. After this accident, the TSB called for all small fishing vessels to undergo an approved stability assessment. Thirteen years later, Transport Canada is in the draft stages of putting in place such a requirement. In the meantime, more fatalities are occurring due to capsizing. In May, the TSB released its report into the capsizing of the Five Star vessel in June 2014 in B.C., which resulted in the drowning of the ship’s master.

“His vessel wasn’t required to have any formal stability assessment done. There was no indications as to how much load he could carry on deck,” Glenn Budden, a senior marine investigator at TSB told My Comox Valley Now. “One of the risks was non-requirement for formal stability assessment for vessels of that size.”

For trap fishing, such as lobster and crab, stability is primarily an issue at the beginning of the season when fishers are putting the traps out and at the end of the season when they are bringing all their traps back in.

“Every year I find vessels that are just barely out of the water when they are loaded with traps, so they are putting themselves and their crew at risk,” says Franck. “It’s OK if it’s nice and flat, calm, but if you start getting a couple metre waves, then you’re really at risk.”

In other fisheries, such as ground fish and long line, stability and the possibility of overloading is a concern throughout the season.

“They might go out and come back with a belly full of their catch and that’s where stability could be a real concern, especially if the water is getting into the holds, so the boat is taking on water slowly and they don’t realize it and it capsizes,” says Franck.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans may be exacerbating the issue because some of its regulations can really impact safety, says McKay. For example, a crew of prawn fishers may have a 30-foot boat that they can safely carry 100 traps on, but the department gives them a license for 500 traps, she says.

“So that’s where we input the education and you go, ‘Well look, this is what’s going to happen if you put those 500 traps on there.’”

There are also regulations on the size of the vessel a fisher can have for his fishing license, which are old regulations that need to be updated, says McKay. As a result, small boats are out in areas where there should be bigger boats.

Fish SAFE offers a stability education program and more than 1,000 fishers have completed the four-day course to date. The course has contributed to the province’s 88 per cent decrease in fishing fatalities since 2004, says McKay.

If a boat is capsizing, fishers need to know how to safely abandon the ship. The best way to teach them is right on their individual boats, says McKay.

“Different vessels may have different equipment, and there may be a different life raft on one boat than another, but you need to be trained on that specific equipment on that boat,” she says. “And you can take a Marine Emergency Duties program in a classroom, but you will have been trained on the equipment used in the classroom, not the equipment on the boat you are working on.”

Conducting emergency drills where fishers need to evacuate their boat is an excellent way to make sure they have the practice they need in the event of an emergency.

Fishers also need to know how to don their survival suits. When LeBlanc did an exercise with a couple of his crew members, they took 15 minutes to put on their survival suits — which are quite tricky to don.

“I looked at them and said, ‘You both drowned,’” says LeBlanc. “By the third time they did it, they were under a minute.”

When the Poseidon Princess capsized off Yarmouth, N.S., in January, the three fishermen on board credited their immersion suits with saving their lives. Captain Martin D’Entremont had conveniently attached the survival suits with a bungee cord over the door going out of the wheelhouse. 

“All the gear was up to snuff, everything was working good and I can’t say enough about the immersion suits... For the one I had, it was the ultimate thing to have on in that situation — saved my life. Other than that, I only had shorts on,” he told the CBC.

Exhaustion prevalent

Worker fatigue is a major problem in the fishing industry.

“It’s not easy work. The conditions they’re working in, the gear they are working with, a lot of it is heavy and they are out in the elements, which in and of itself would have an impact on you physically, but they can also be gone for very long periods of time,” says Allison Himmelman, senior communications advisor at Nova Scotia’s WCB. “If they fish quite far out, it might take them a day to get to the fishing ground and then they might be out there for a couple of days before they come back. It’s long hours.”

Fishers typically do not get much sleep or they get uninterrupted sleep.

Fisher fatigue has gotten worse over the past few years because of economics in certain fisheries — some crews are going out with fewer people on board, says McKay. Fish SAFE has developed an education program for anyone navigating the vessel on the effects of fatigue and how to develop procedures around minimizing it.

Fatigue reduces decision-making ability, hand-eye co-ordination, visual perception and capacity to judge risk.

For example, a veteran halibut fisherman in B.C. who worked safely and had many safe work practices in place overlooked a safety procedure one evening when it was late, his crew was pulling in their last string and he was exhausted.

“They had been working for over 20 hours and he said, ‘I saw this and I knew I shouldn’t have done it, but I thought I could get away with it,’ and he ended up overboard,” says McKay.

People who are fatigued are unable to gauge their own level of impairment, so it’s crucial all crew members are trained on how to look for fatigue in other people, she says.

Nova Scotia’s Fishing Safety Action Plan is tackling the issue of fatigue and recommending more research be done to truly understand the scale of the problem. The goal is to encourage fishers to look at their current work practices and get them thinking about how they might work differently to ensure they aren’t too tired or worn out to be working safely, says Himmelman.

Drugs and alcohol are also a big problem on fishing vessels.

“If you look at all the accidents that happen and you were to identify what was the key item, you would be surprised how often alcohol or drugs were a contributing factor — probably in most of the accidents,” says LeBlanc who is also a member of the Safe at Sea Alliance.

Some captains have said they will not be able to get a crew if they do not allow drugs and alcohol on board and, in some cases, if they don’t provide the drugs and alcohol, says Franck.

The Safe at Sea Alliance is working on getting fishers to understand the boat is their workplace and it is unacceptable to show up at work with drugs and alcohol, says Rowan.

“It’s just a way of life… but we are seeing a lot of captains running their ships and vessels as a professional workplace and setting the standard,” she says.

While there has been an element of drinking in fishing since LeBlanc started in the industry 33 years ago, he still never allowed drugs or alcohol on his boat, and he discusses this issue at every one of his association’s general meetings. He believes the best way to handle this is to have the RCMP boarding vessels and doing spot checks — then the issue will “clear up very quickly,” he says.

Knowledge sharing needed

One reason for the strong culture of safety in fishing in B.C. is a focus on mentorship. The west coast has an average of 2.33 deaths per year in the fishing industry, according to the TSB. Fishers are helping fellow fishers foster a safety culture, says McKay, who is a third-generation fisher herself.

“When I talk to a fisherman about stability, he is more likely to listen to me than to some government person or some instructor at an institution that knows the principles but maybe he can see in my face the consequences of not understanding stability,” McKay says, whose father and uncle died at sea in 1975 due to capsizing.

Fish SAFE’s programs are driven by storytelling because that is an important part of the fishing culture.

“Fishermen are big talkers. They like to talk about the last big catch or last big haul, and every fisherman has a story,” McKay says. “I can go down to the boat and we can be talking about man overboard and he will say ‘Oh yeah just last summer, remember so and so?’ And use that as your platform: ‘What happened there? What could have happened? How would you prevent that? What would you do on your boat?’”

Sometimes the older fishers are mentoring the younger ones without really knowing it. For example, LeBlanc was one of the first fishermen to put on a PFD and he insisted that everyone on his boat wear the device, then slowly, more and more men in his fishing community started to don PFDs.

“When you’re a mentor, you’ve got to be seen as not just promoting safety, but doing safety,” he says.

Slowly but surely, the fishing industry is putting a greater emphasis on safety and the tradition of tragedy will hopefully soon come to an end. There are many people in the industry who are quite safety conscious, says Franck, and thousands and thousands of successful fishing trips are completed safely year after year.

“The main difference is fishermen now believe and they have proved with the proper tools, programs and education that they can come home safely, as compared to when we first started this, there was just that acceptance that the inherent risk in fishing included loss of life,” says McKay. “It was just accepted that you go out, you might come back, you might not.”

And LeBlanc is seeing positive changes around increased safety awareness within his own fishing community as well. Although he suffers daily flashbacks to the boat explosion in 1985, LeBlanc continues to share his story to ensure no one else has to walk in his shoes.

“Every time someone loses a child or someone dies in the ocean, I look up at the sky and say ‘One more member that’s joined our club,’” he says. “I’m out to prevent someone else from joining my club.”

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of COS.