Fisheries organizations walk out on safety regulation talks

Transport Canada isn't giving fish harvesters enough time or guidance to comply with new safety regulations, which come into effect July 13, says Melanie Sonnenberg, president of the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters Federation.

Fifteen fishing organizations representing more than 20,000 men and women in the fishing industry attended a meeting last Thursday with Transport Canada's Atlantic region but walked out in frustration, she said.

"It was a perfect storm of frustrations," Sonnenberg said. "Twenty thousand people are a lot of people to bring up to speed. They need to understand what's going to be required of them to become compliant. 

"The problem is that how the regulations are implemented and what they actually mean.

Trying to reduce deaths

The regulations announced last July are an attempt to reduce deaths related to falling overboard and to the stability of vessels, department spokesperson Marie-Anyk Côté said in an email Monday.

Transport Canada consulted industry players on all coasts, including vessel owners and safety groups, she said. The year between the announcement or the new rules and their implementation was sufficient for owners to become familiar with the requirements.

Côté also said Transport Canada was working with the owners of small fishing vessels to help them meet the new rules and has provided web links to helpful docouments.

But Sonnenberg said communication from Transport Canada on the mandatory written safety procedures, life-saving equipment, written records of training and standard procedures in emergencies has been inadequate. 

"Right now, you take the crew around, show them the highlights of the vessel and have some discussion around how to deal with [emergencies]," she said. "Now you're required to have a binder on your boat, keep records of the training you've done with your crew."

The problem for fish harvester organizations is that Transport Canada is trying to "take a cookie-cutter approach and apply a template, but every vessel is different," Sonnenberg said.

"All we're asking is to have some time to bring people into compliance by phasing in the regulation starting with bigger boats and working our way down," Sonnenberg said.

She also suggested "getting out on the wharf, town halls, printed materials and presentations" would be more useful than the online material Transport Canada has provided.

"The internet is not how most of us in the fishing community communicate," Sonnenberg said.

Fisheries organizations want to phase in the regulations over seven years — the amount of time it took to adopt similar service standards for marine personnel programs, she said.

'A lot of misunderstanding'

With the new regulations poised to come into effect in July, Sonnenberg said, "there's already a lot of misunderstanding about what that means and how to apply it."

The department's own inspection officers aren't trained yet and "aren't familiar with how it's going to be applied."

Meanwhile, Transport Canada has said it is taking  a "soft approach" to enforcing the new regulations — but fishermen can still be held responsible if an accident occurs and they're found to be non-compliant.

A request for comment from Transport Canada was not returned.

"You cans see that there's a bit of a disconnect here," Sonnenberg said. "And it's not acceptable."