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Chronicle Herald Op-Ed: Our risk-running culture on high seas must change

The following op-ed by Stuart MacLean, CEO of the Workers' Compensation Board, appeared on page A13 of the Wednesday, February 24, 2014 edition of the Chronicle Herald.

A little over a year ago, in mid-February, it was time to catch halibut on the fishing grounds off Nova Scotia. 

As boats left port along our southeastern coast, they would have been full of excitement, full of hope, full of the confident seafaring energy at the core of our fishing culture. There were fish to be caught, and the time was now. 

So spouses, girlfriends and moms said goodbye. And, as Della Sears, mother to 21-year old Miss Ally Captain Katlin Nickerson, recently shared in the news, she cooked her son supper before driving him and his crew to the wharf in Cape Sable Island. 

For a couple of days, all was well. But then things changed. As the weather worsened, some other boats started heading for port. 

According to media reports, the Miss Ally would have headed in too - but there was a problem. They needed to retrieve their gear. It was dark, and a piece of equipment had broken, so they didn't have light to find it. They waited overnight; they found and hauled the gear in the morning; and they headed for Sambro. 

They never made it. 

A wall of water about 20 metres high– the equivalent to a six-storey office building – struck the Miss Ally on February 17. 

You don't need to look any further than the pain in Della Sears' eyes to see the human impact of workplace tragedy, or to see the reasons things need to change in the fishing industry. 

I can't speculate about anything aboard the Miss Ally. But I do know this. It did not have to happen. This tragedy was preventable.

I don’t mean that any one person should have done something differently. But I do mean this: A system of influences and realities – economic, social, mechanical, and natural – left the Miss Ally in harm's way. And as a result, the five young men aboard it are lost forever.

This system is not something any one person or any one entity can change. It is a culture. And cultures take time, and the actions of many, to change. The culture in our fishing industry is something that we, as a province, need to change together. Because it cannot go on like this. Today, in 2014, fishing does not have to come with the possibility of death. It simply does not. 

I can’t begin to say what Della Sears must be feeling. Her courage in speaking out is beyond words. Unfortunately, it is a courage and heartbreak that I have seen before. 

When I visited with Charlene Doucette, who lost her son Michael from the rear of a fishing vessel just a few weeks before the Miss Ally tragedy, I remember a similar tone of voice. I felt a helplessness. I sensed her loss. I saw a gaping hole in the fabric of a family. 

It doesn’t need to be like this. We can, together, change the outcome for future fishermen, for families, businesses and economies along our coastlines.

Della Sears is right that safety-related equipment like beacons can help. I applaud her brave suggestion, as should we all. And while we at the WCB and our partners promote the use of PFDs because they increase the chance of survival, again, there is no one thing that can make all the difference that is needed. All of us who care about our people coming home need to change the way we think about fishing. 

It's not okay to accept any price of fish as worth the risk of human life. It's not okay to accept the risk of not coming home as part of any job. It's not okay to let this keep happening, year after year. 

But change cannot be brought to fishermen and their communities by those of us outside of the industry. Change must come from the communities in which it needs to occur. 

That is why over the past year, together with partners like the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Fisheries Sector Council, the Department of Labour and Advanced Education, and the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, we have laid the groundwork for a new conversation. 

It is a conversation with industry leaders and with community safety champions about what might be different in fishing. It is a conversation about how the rules of the game might be changed, so that fishing can happen more safely, and so that our proud traditions in this province carry on, in a way that doesn't risk people not coming home to their families. I look forward to talking more about this in the coming weeks.

For right now though, we at the WCB look back to a year ago in Woods Harbour. We join Nova Scotia in remembering a tragedy that didn't have to happen. And I vow to do everything within my scope of influence to ensure we prevent these tragedies in the future.

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