MRO Magazine

In aftermath of sinking, crew member’s widow says Transport Canada reform falls short

July 8, 2023 | By Michael Tutton

HALIFAX – Transport Canada will tighten inspections of fishing vessels in the aftermath of a deadly Nova Scotia sinking in 2020, but the widow of a lost crew member says the reform doesn’t go far enough to prevent future tragedies.

Six crew members died on Dec. 15, 2022, when the Chief William Saulis capsized as heavy seas crashed into the rocking boat and 2,700 kilograms of unsecured scallops slid around a deck, blocking drainage.

The bodies of Eugene (Geno) Michael Francis, Aaron Cogswell, Leonard Gabriel, Dan Forbes and captain Charles Roberts were never recovered after the 17-metre vessel went down off Delaps Cove, in the province’s southwest. The body of crew member Michael Drake was swept up on the rocky shoreline.

The federal Transportation Department said in an email Thursday it has agreed with a March 22 recommendation from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s investigation into the sinking. The safety board recommended that inspectors verify that “required, written safety procedures” are available to crew, such as methods to store catch in a way that doesn’t block drainage.


But Michelle Nickerson-Forbes, the widow of Dan Forbes, said in an interview Friday that the federal department is failing to move on what she and other families consider a root cause of repeated fishing tragedies: unstable vessels going out to sea.

“It’s great that you have the manuals and everyone has to have them on deck, but if they don’t know if your boat is safe to begin with, then why should it be able to leave port?” said Nickerson-Forbes, adding that her two sons lost a father when the Chief William Saulis sank.

The safety board noted in its findings that ever since the 2015 sinking of the Caledonia, off the west coast, the board has repeatedly recommended to Transport Canada to mandate “all” small fishing vessels have stability assessments done by marine architects and that crew receive training on the resulting manuals.

The safety board has noted that five small vessel sinkings since 2007 were related to poor stability. Also, in its report on the Chief William Saulis, it found that the boat should have had a stability assessment, as the owners had modified the vessel by adding a heavy, A-frame structure for dragging.

Nickerson-Forbes said she and other families intend to keep pressuring Transport Canada for the legal reform to ensure vessel stability.

“At each stage of this you feel a little more defeated ? and people are forgetting. But we’ll never forget. I don’t want other people to have to go through what I went through when something as simple as a legal change could avoid it,” she said.

The March safety board report said it had made repeated calls to Transport Canada to ensure all small fishing vessels have stability assessments, with the results “readily available to the crew,” a recommendation known as M16-03. On its website, the board continues to list the Transport Canada response as “unsatisfactory.”

Board chair Kathy Fox told reporters in March that ensuring stability remains “the only way the crew on these vessels will know the safe operating limits” of their boats.

Marc-Andre Poisson, a professional mariner and former director of marine investigations at the safety board, said in an interview Thursday that Transport Canada’s acceptance of the board’s recommendation is “moving the yardstick,” as it would require inspectors to ensure fishing companies are providing crews with basic procedures.

However, he agreed with Fox that the move is incomplete without Transport Canada adopting the safety board’s long-standing recommendation for stability assessments conducted by naval architects.

Poisson, who is also the author of “Whodunit: Investigating Industrial Accidents,” said these assessments result in a stability booklet that would tell the captain and crew very precisely about a boat’s load limits under various weather scenarios.

He suggested the Senate standing committee on fisheries and oceans examine the issue, including the costs involved, and come up with recommendations for the federal government. “If safety is your priority, why wouldn’t you want to do it?” he said.

A spokeswoman for Transport Canada said in an email that the agency continues to believe that requiring a stability assessment for all fishing vessels “would not be feasible due to limitations on the number of available competent persons that are qualified to carry out stability assessments, and the large number of fishing vessels in the Canadian fleet.”

Melanie Sonnenberg, president of the Canadian Independent Fisher Harvesters Federation, has said that mandatory stability assessments aren’t the answer and that Transport Canada needs first to increase education programs.


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