100 years after sealing disaster, Canadian government still gambling with safety

The government excuse for not taking action on the TSB recommendation — that fewer boats taking part in the seal hunt means there is a reduced risk — is ridiculous. The risk is no less great to those at sea. c. IFAW

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914, when 251 Canadian sealers died in two separate, but simultaneous disasters involving the SS Newfoundland and SS Southern Cross.

The tragic story of the SS Newfoundland, when 132 men were left stranded on the ice, is legendary. The SS Southern Cross sank while returning from the Gulf of St. Lawrence loaded with pelts, taking with it the 173 men aboard.

Operating in the icy Atlantic continues to be risky and dangerous today. It’s been six years since the fishing vessel L’Acadien II lost its rudder in ice on the way to the seal hunt. While under tow by the icebreaker CCGS Sir William Alexander, L’Acadien II capsized off Cape Breton. Two of the crew were saved, while four others drowned.

I remember the day well.

International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) staff had gathered in our hotel lobby at dawn, preparing to head out to film the hunt. When we heard the terrible news, we offered our helicopter and camera to assist in search and rescue efforts instead.

In all, more than 1,000 people have lost their lives hunting seals.

Since the L’Acadien II incident, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has made recommendations to increase safety. It called for adequate measures in the Fishing Vessel Safety Regulations to ensure that all fishing vessels operating in ice - including those participating in the seal hunt - are structurally suited for their operating environment.

But these safety recommendations have not yet been implemented.

And with the thickest ice reported in Atlantic Canada in the last quarter of a century, this is deeply concerning.

The reason, of course, is money.

Most of the boats that currently take part in the commercial seal hunt are made of wood, aluminum, or fiberglass, and are under 20 metres in length. Hulls, propellers, and rudders are rarely strengthened for operating in ice-infested waters. Nor do most of them carry insurance, which is expensive and often comes with a $100,000 deductible. Between 1990 and 2005, the Coast Guard reports that there were 227 incidents involving boats requiring assistance. Most involved hull damage, and 21 were lost as a result.

Ignoring warnings about thick ice conditions, some 100 boats headed out for the seal hunt in 2007 and became trapped in the ice for several weeks, requiring a $3.4 million rescue effort footed by Canadian taxpayers. 

The government excuse for not taking action on the TSB recommendation — that fewer boats taking part in the seal hunt means there is a reduced risk — is ridiculous. The risk is no less great to those at sea.

Sealers have loudly opposed the TSB recommendations since they came out, one even calling them “a pile of crap” on the record, and have vehemently denied the TSB’s conclusions that there is a “lack of safety culture” in the sealing and fishing industries.

Putting economics ahead of safety is a recipe for disaster. The Newfoundland tragedy, for instance, could have been potentially avoided had the wireless radios not been removed from one of the ships. The owners were interested in the radio only as a means of improving the hunt’s profitability and did not view it as a safety device; it was removed because it had failed to result in larger catches during previous seasons.

Canada is subsidizing, encouraging, and promoting a seal hunt that continues to be very risky and dangerous, while ignoring recommendations that would make this hunt safer for the people involved. 

Many events and memorials will mark the occasion of the sealing tragedy, undoubtedly to be attended by myriad federal and provincial politicians making their solemn speeches. And so it should be; these tragedies should never be forgotten.

But what of the few remaining sealers today?

We can only hope that the heavy ice conditions of 2014 do not result in yet another loss of human life – tragedy that could be prevented had it not been for the government’s continued unwillingness to implement recommendations to improve safety at sea.

--SF

For more information on IFAW efforts to end the Canadian commercial seal hunt, visit our campaign page.

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Experts

Dr. Ralf (Perry) Sonntag, Country Director, Germany
Country Director, Germany
Sheryl Fink, Wildlife Campaigns Director, IFAW Canada
Wildlife Campaigns Director, IFAW Canada
Sonja Van Tichelen, Regional Director, European Union
Regional Director, European Union