'It can't just be an anniversary': Calls for change continue 1 year after fishermen die off Labrador coast

·6 min read
Joey Jenkins, left, and Marc Russell were lost at sea off the coast of Labrador last September. (Submitted by Jonah Smith/Jeanette Russell - image credit)
Joey Jenkins, left, and Marc Russell were lost at sea off the coast of Labrador last September. (Submitted by Jonah Smith/Jeanette Russell - image credit)

It's been one year since fishermen Marc Russell and Joey Jenkins left the wharf in Mary's Harbour to gather their nets for the last time.

The two fishermen died off the southern coast of Labrador on Sept. 17 of last year. Their fishing vessel, the Island Lady, was last seen in the afternoon. No distress calls were received.

"It can't just be an anniversary, briefly. Something more needs to come out of it. No other family should have to grieve like this," said Niki Greeley, a Lodge Bay resident and Jenkins's common-law partner.

Greeley describes Jenkins as a kind, compassionate and caring person with a dry sense of humour.

"I've never met anybody that could give you a bad word about him. And that's probably the hardest part," Greeley said, "is why someone so good, so honestly and truly good, had to be taken in such a tragic way."

The search on Sept. 17 last year started after Russell's father noticed his son wasn't on social media as usual that Friday night. His father called around and found out the boat wasn't back at the wharf.

Submitted by Dwight Russell
Submitted by Dwight Russell

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre called off the search and rescue mission after 48 hours and turned it over to the RCMP for a recovery mission. The family contends that was the wrong call, as fog had hindered search efforts that weekend.

After pressure from the family, the military and coast guard continued to aid in the RCMP's recovery mission.

"During a very vulnerable time in our lives we were having to strap up our laces and advocate for ourselves," said Jeanette Russell, Marc Russell's mother.

Jeanette said the family not only had to deal with losing a child, but also fight for first responders to keep looking for the men.

CBC
CBC

"The Canadian Rangers and the Coast Guard Auxiliary were never ever formally deployed in the search for Marc and Joey. Why [were they] not? Why did the Marine Rescue Centre not make that call?" Jeanette asks.

Losing Marc and Jenkins initiated a conversation that should have occurred long ago, according to Jeanette, who believes it's unfortunate it took another tragedy after Burton Winters went missing off the coast of Labrador 10 years ago to get deficiencies addressed.

A year later, while she pushes for change, she's still grappling with grief.

"We've lost a beautiful person and nothing can ever replace that, but you just hold in your heart the privilege of having known him. And if I had to choose, I'd choose to do it all again because just for the joy of having had him in my life," Jeanette said.

Coast Guard stations needed in Labrador: Greeley

Greeley agrees systemic changes are needed.

The Canadian Coast Guard needs to set up at least two stations in Labrador, Greeley argues. She wants to see one on the north coast and one on the south coast.

"I know it as a person sitting there on the wharf, watching those aircrafts coming and then searching and then turning around and having to go elsewhere for fuel," Greeley said. "They had to go back to the island to get fuel."

Greeley described a sickening, helpless feeling watching them take off again.

Submitted by Niki Greeley
Submitted by Niki Greeley

The island of Newfoundland has 11 Canadian Coast Guard stations. Labrador is more than double the size of the island. The island also has fast craft rescue centres while Labrador doesn't, Jeanette said.

"Why is Labrador left out from that? I mean, we have a very active fishery and recreational boating industry here in Labrador and we have a tremendous lack in infrastructure that needs to be addressed," Jeanette said.

CBC contacted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that is responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard. They did not reply to questions by the deadline.

The provincial Department of Justice and Public Safety that is responsible for Emergency Services NL said they continue to work closely with the RCMP to ensure people are safe and their federal counterparts on availability of assets. It said it also allocated $20 million this year for a new province-wide radio system to help emergency responders.

The Department of National Defence said the Canadian Armed Forces has a robust SAR system with which they respond to aeronautical and maritime incidents upon request. They said they have a positive relationship with our provincial partners and have not had difficulty in accessing NLSARA resources when needed.

Submitted by Jonah Smith
Submitted by Jonah Smith

Transport Canada investigation showed no beacons on board 

A Transport Canada investigation said the Island Lady most likely sank unexpectedly and quickly, and didn't have "any operable distress alerting devices." Emergency position-indicating radio beacons are mandatory on larger boats, but not on vessels the Island Lady's size.

After the Transportation Safety Board report came out, Jeanette said she felt that Marc was being blamed for his own tragedy.

"The Transportation Safety Board was saying, 'If this had been done and that had been done, it might have led to a more positive outcome,'" Jeanette said. "If these things are essential to a positive outcome to be able to rescue somebody, why aren't they mandatory?"

Jeanette said RCMP officers on the ground were compassionate but they lacked resources and training to coordinate the effort. Greeley recalls the local RCMP also had to ask fishermen for help because they didn't have a boat to search in.

"I just shudder to think our experience was horrific enough, the Jenkins's experience was horrific enough. I just pray to God it never happens again," Jeanette said.

Submitted by Jeanette Russell
Submitted by Jeanette Russell

Conversations are happening now, though, that haven't happened in the past, she said.

"At this stage, that's the only way to honour Marc and Joey's legacy. That's the only way for us to have something to cling to at the end of the day, to say OK, this terrible thing happened but something good came from it," Jeanette said.

Small changes in motion

Despite the large changes still needed, Greeley said she's witnessed small positive steps.

"People are wearing life jackets. I've seen more people with life jackets this summer than what I've seen in my five summers of being out on the water in Labrador," Greeley said.

Greeley said she'd like to put on Jenkins' rose-coloured glasses, but it's hard to be hopeful that large-scale change will happen in the wake of the men's deaths. Being on the water is a way of life in Labrador, she points out, and more infrastructure could save lives in the future.

Submitted by Niki Greeley
Submitted by Niki Greeley

On the one-year anniversary, Greeley said family and friends will be joining her to lay a wreath where the two men used to fish.

"I feel peace, ironically enough, being on the water because I feel close to him," Greeley said. "If I could get in a boat and never have to leave, I probably would.

"I just miss him."

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