'Collective grief' hits Atlantic Canada after loss of Nova Scotia fisherman

CLARK'S HARBOUR, N.S. — Coastal communities across Atlantic Canada were aching Wednesday after the loss of a fisherman in Nova Scotia this week.

Online fisher forums from Newfoundland and Labrador to Nova Scotia posted messages honouring Christian Atwood, while non-profit Fish Safe NS set up free counselling services for communities along Nova Scotia's southernmost tip.

Fish Safe NS executive director Matthew Duffy says the loss of a fisher triggers a collective grief across coastal Atlantic Canada, where the dangerous profession has taken so many lives.

"It's something that you feel deep down in your stomach," Duffy said Wednesday in an interview, noting that he grew up watching his father regularly steam out into the open waters on a fishing boat. "We have so many people that we care about that go out and make a living at sea. It's something that's always in the back of our minds."

He said his group began offering counselling after fishing disasters following the sinking of the Chief William Saulis two years ago, which killed six fishermen and left communities in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador grappling with their deaths.

Atwood was one of three crew members aboard the The Little Weasel Too fishing vessel when he went overboard on Boxing Day morning, about 11 kilometres south of Cape Sable Island. Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre Halifax received a mayday at 8:21 a.m. and dispatched two Canadian Coast Guard vessels — the Cape Roger and Clarks Harbour — as well as a Cormorant helicopter and a Hercules aircraft to look for him.

The search carried on overnight and into Tuesday morning, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. Officials called it off early Tuesday afternoon.

"It's an unimaginable thing to have to go through," Duffy said.

Fish Safe NS will offer free counselling in the Clark’s Harbour and Barrington region, which includes Cape Sable Island, he said, adding that he hopes it will begin next week.

The ache of Atwood's loss has reached the small Newfoundland community of Branch, which sits along the southern coast of the island's Avalon Peninsula.

For the past eight years, fishers in Branch have strung their boats with lights each holiday season to honour their lost colleagues. The lighting took place this year after the town's small Santa Claus parade, and a local family member of a deceased fisherman read a tribute on the wharf.

Branch Mayor Kelly Power said the lights were on when news about Atwood spread this week.

"Living in a small fishing town with so many people who are connected to the fishery, like makes you think, 'This could be our family,'" she said Wednesday in an interview. "It brings it close to people. Everyone is thinking of the person's family."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press