The lack of a formal stability vessel assessment and insufficient information in the vessel operations and safety manual have been identified as two contributing factors in the sinking of the scallop dragger, the Chief William Saulis on Dec. 15, 2020, stated the Transportation Safety Board (TSB).
“Our investigation identified several key factors that contributed to this accident,” said TSB senior investigator Pearse Flynn, during a news conference in Halifax on March 23.
“The Chief William Saulis, like many other fishing vessels, did not have a formal stability assessment in place, so the crew made operating decisions that likely affected the vessel’s stability without sufficient knowledge of the safe operating limits. At the time of the occurrence, the crew was sailing with an estimated load of 4,300 kg of scallops. About 2,700 kg of this load was unshucked scallops stored on deck in unsecured piles up to five feet high and in totes and baskets. Crews will typically shuck scallops on their way back to harbour, however in rough seas they will usually rest inside the vessel and finish the work once in port.
“At the time of the occurrence, weather records and the course of the vessel indicated beam sea conditions, which would have resulted in waves hitting the vessel broadside and breaking across the deck. The vessel’s freeing ports, which allow water to drain from the main deck, were likely covered either mechanically or by the unsecured scallops so that water from the heavy beam sea accumulated on deck. The resulting free surface effect created by the rolling motion from the heavy beam sea, accumulated water, and shifting scallops likely caused the vessel to capsize and sink.”
Flynn said survivability was significantly impacted by the combination of the rate at which the water flooded the vessel and its cold temperature, fatigue, being woken from sleep, the surrounding darkness, difficult-to-access escape routes and stress response.
“Finally, while the owner of the Chief William Saulis, Yarmouth Sea Products Limited, had provided all vessels in its fleet with a manual for vessel operations and safety, most of the safety procedures were based on templates provided by Transport Canada. Neither these templates, nor the manual for the vessel, included all procedures required by regulation. The manual also did not have any written procedures to guide the use of the freeing ports, or for how scallops should be stowed on deck,” said Flynn.
In addition to explaining what its investigation found, the TSB has issued a recommendation with regards to Transport Canada’s regulatory surveillance of safety procedure documentation available to crews to help ensure fish harvesters have access to important, potentially lifesaving information.
“Both the Canada Shipping Act,  and the Fishing Vessel Safety Regulations are clear in their requirement that a vessel’s authorized representative — in this case, Yarmouth Sea Products, Ltd. — provide written safety procedures that familiarize vessel crews with operational and emergency activities,” said TSB chairperson Kathy Fox.
“Yet the Transport Canada templates do not include all procedures required by regulation. So, as seen with the Chief William Saulis, many company manuals may be incomplete if based mostly on these templates. This is an industry-wide issue.”
Fox said in 2021/2022, Transport Canada conducted a national concentrated inspection campaign on compliance with the Fishing Vessel Safety Regulations, including regulatory requirements for written safety procedures.
“They found deficiencies that had not been identified through their certification program and issued deficiency notices to 62 per cent of the 101 vessels inspected. The largest number of deficiencies were related to vessel and crew safety, with deficiencies related to drills and drill records (41 per cent) the completeness and accessibility of safety procedures (30 per cent) and the crews’ knowledge of safety procedures (28 per cent). Companies must identify hazards specific to the nature of their operations and assess risks using a guided process, otherwise it will compromise the safety of their crew. And if the vessel certification process doesn’t identify gaps in safety procedures and provide education, then there is a risk that authorized representatives will allow vessels to operate without effective safe work practices,” said Fox.
As evident by the findings into the Chief William Saulis sinking, “the ongoing lack of regulatory oversight means that fishing crews are routinely operating on vessels without even knowing how to stay safe or how to respond when things go wrong,” said Fox.
The TSB is recommending that Transport Canada ensures that each inspection of a commercial fishing vessel verifies that each required written safety procedure is available to the crew and that the crew are knowledgeable of these procedures.
In 2012, the TSB released an in-depth study on the causes of fatal fishing vessel accidents. The investigation 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 PFDs, immersion suits, and emergency signaling devices; unsafe work practices and inadequate regulatory surveillance, an issue so pervasive it has been on the TSB Watchlist for 13 years.
“It bears repeating that safety is a shared responsibility,” said Fox. “Yet here we are still talking about many of the same issues, and another six fish harvesters didn’t make it home from what could have been a preventable accident. How many more people have to be lost at sea before these changes are made?”
Shortly after midnight on Dec. 15, 2020, the Chief William Saulis, with six crew members onboard, departed Chignecto Bay, New Brunswick, to return to port in Digby, Nova Scotia. Shortly after 5:50 a.m., the vessel’s emergency position-indicating radio beacon activated, 12 nautical miles off the coast of Digby. Search and rescue deployed and recovered the body of crew member Michael Drake approximately 10 and a half hours later. Lost to the sea were Leonard Gabriel, Aaron Cogswell, Eugene Francis, Dan Forbes, and Charles Roberts. The vessel was located on Jan. 16, 2021 in 66 metres of water close to where the EPIRB activated near Delaps Cove, Nova Scotia.
Among the other findings of the TSB that could enhance safety, resolve an issue of controversy, or provide a data point for future safety studies is that Yarmouth Sea Products Limited did not have an up-to-date crew list for the Chief William Saulis before the vessel departed for the fishing grounds. Yarmouth Sea Products Limited was unable to provide the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre with the total number of persons on board until 26 hours after the occurrence.
The full report into the Chief William Saulis sinking is available on the TSB website.