Like most industries around the globe, COVID-19 has many seafood harvesting and processing businesses reeling right now.
At this time of the year, Southwest Nova lobster fishermen are normally putting a big push on to finish their season strong, while in other parts of Atlantic Canada, the snow crab fishery is about to ramp up into high gear, not to mention other Maritime lobster seasons.
Economically speaking, spring is the critical season for many fishing enterprises.
However, the COVID-19 virus has blindsided the industry, leading to market closures for Atlantic Canadian seafood, inventory gluts and unprecedented drops in price for such critical and valuable commodities as lobster. And right now, a similar uncertainty abounds with the multi-million-dollar snow crab fishery.
In this time of crisis, the fishing industry needs to be deemed an essential service. Not only does this sector provide billions of dollars to the economy of Atlantic Canada and thousands of jobs, it produces food the world needs right now more than ever.
And thus far, government legislators are taking heed and ensuring that fishing vessel and processing labour remain accessible and mobile. As well, the seafood supply chain must remain supported and functioning. After harvest, fish and seafood processing, transportation, cold storage and supply chain services are required to get products to consumers that need them. Careful consideration and planning are required to keep these essential parts of the food supply chain working.
Simply put, fishermen need to keep fishing and plants need to keep processing.
But in the chaos and haste to keep the fisheries wheels turning, one important factor cannot be sacrificed or overlooked — safety.
Take note, fishing is still one of the most dangerous professions in the world.
Despite all of the safety training and equipment advances the fishing industry has made over the last few decades, on average, there is still one fishery-related fatality each month in Canada.
The health and safety of fishing crews must and should always be the foremost priority. During these uncertain times society is now facing, the consistent supply of healthy, nutritious food is more important than ever, but it is not worth losing a life over.
Everyone in this industry knows and appreciates how dangerous an occupation fishing can be. Unfortunately, each year, the numbers speak for themselves.
According to the most recent statistics from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), in 2018 there were 282 marine accidents reported, just above the 2017 total of 279 and below the five-year average of 287.
Although the number of fishing vessels involved in accidents was lower than the previous year, 12 of the 14 fatal marine accidents and 18 of the 20 marine fatalities were related to the commercial fishing industry.
In 2018, 937 marine incidents were reported to the TSB. This number represents a six per cent increase from 2017 and a 22 per cent increase from the five-year average of 768. Most (78 per cent) of the reportable incidents were related to total failure of machinery or technical systems.
Although the number of fishing vessels involved in accidents was lower in 2018 than in the previous year, all eight fatal shipping accidents and the 14 related fatalities involved Canadian-flagged commercial fishing vessels. Four of the six fatal accidents aboard ships involved Canadian fishing vessels, as did the four related fatalities.
The fishing industry — in Canada as abroad — has long registered disproportionately large numbers of accidents and fatalities. Since 1992, the TSB has made 48 recommendations to address safety deficiencies, 13 (27 per cent) of which are still outstanding.
In 2012, the TSB released a safety issues investigation on the root causes of fatal fishing vessel accidents. Findings highlighted a number of systemic factors requiring attention, in particular vessel modifications and their impact on stability, the lack of or failure to use lifesaving equipment, such as personal flotation devices (PFDs), immersion suits and emergency signaling devices, unsafe work practices and inadequate regulatory oversight.
As well, from 2011 to 2017, the TSB conducted 24 investigations where these systemic factors were associated with findings as to risk. This same time period also witnessed 63 fishing fatalities — an average of nine fatalities per year — resulting from 47 fishing vessel accidents.
Nearly 43 per cent of those fatalities were due to falling overboard and 35 per cent to stability-related issues. The use of PFDs could not be ascertained in about 80 per cent of the fatalities. No emergency signal was received by authorities in nearly half of the fatalities (44 per cent).
The fishery in Atlantic Canada is accustomed to adversity. But not even the most negative industry skeptic could have ever imagined the crisis being faced right now. It is absolutely unprecedented, as we ply through these unchartered waters.
But even as all stakeholders, including harvesters, processors and regulators, work together to try and forge ahead and map out a strategy to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 virus, the safety of all involved must be at the forefront. When you are dealing with people’s lives, corners cannot be cut and unnecessary risks must not be taken in the name of profit.
Everyone reading this wants to do their part to allow this vital industry to come back. But that can’t be overshadowed by the fact that every person that steps aboard a fishing vessel also wants to come back safely after each trip.