A new report into the 2020 sinking of the Sarah Anne off Newfoundland's south coast says the fishing vessel likely capsized suddenly, sending all four crew members into the water and causing their deaths.
Clifford Harvey, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada's director of marine investigation, said the absence of life-saving equipment and distress signals support the conclusion that the vessel's capsizing took the crew by surprise.
"Without critical pieces of life-saving equipment the crew remained in the cold water, likely unassisted, and drowned. The water temperature at the time of the occurrence was 4 C," he said Wednesday morning, at a news conference at the Alt Hotel in St. John's for the release of the board's report into its investigation.
The capsizing would have resulted in all crew members entering the water before they had the chance to put on life-jackets, personal flotation devices or immersion suits, deploy a life raft or make a distress call, says the report. There was no indication the Sarah Anne was struck by a larger commercial vessel, according to the report.
The crew — skipper Eddie Joe Norman, 67; his son, Scott Norman, 35; his nephew, Jody Norman, 42, and Isaac Kettle, 33 — left St. Lawrence, on Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula, shortly after midnight on May 25, 2020, to fish for snow crab in Placentia Bay. The vessel was last seen 10:30 a.m. that day and was reported missing at 7:45 p.m. when it was overdue for its return.
The bodies of three of the men — who were all from St. Lawrence — were recovered in the water the following day. The fourth man was recovered from shore on June 6. The vessel was never found.
Harvey said the Sarah Anne was not equipped with a vessel monitoring system or an automatic identification system.
When the vessel was last seen, he said, it was within the limits of the Placentia Bay traffic services, but without active monitoring or a distress signal there was a delay of "several hours" for a search and rescue response which severely reduced the crew's chance of survival.
"These factors are all too common in fishing accidents. The absence of distress alerting devices and not wearing PFDs on small fishing vessels has contributed to 20 occurrences and 42 fatalities from 2010 to 2020," Harvey said.
Stability issue a possible factor
Harvey said the TSB also investigated the Sarah Anne's stability — the ability of a vessel to right itself after being heeled over from external forces such as wind, waves or the its operation.
He said a formal stability assessment had not been done for the Sarah Anne.
"The TSB created a model of the Sarah Anne from a sister vessel and completed a stability analysis. The analysis showed that the Sarah Anne was likely operating outside of stability limits and that the vessel stability limit would have deteriorated as the trip progressed," said Harvey.
"Without a formal stability assessment, the crew made operating decisions without knowing the vessel's actual safe operating limits. This may have negatively affected the vessel's stability and led to its capsizing and sinking."
Harvey said it's not unusual for a fishing vessel to not have a formal stability assessment done because they're not required.
Board recommends registration with Transport Canada
The board is recommending the Department of Fisheries and Oceans require all Canadian commercial fishing vessels to maintain an accurate Transport Canada registration.
Board chair Kathy Fox said vessel safety is regulated by Transport Canada while commercial fishing activity is regulated by the DFO. Fishing vessels are required to be registered with both federal government departments in order to operate, she said, but the board's investigation found there are more than 4,000 fishing vessels in Newfoundland and Labrador registered only with DFO.
"This means that DFO is issuing licences to harvest marine resources without verifying that the vessel was correctly registered with Transport Canada," she said.
Fish harvesters who receive a licence issued by DFO might be given the impression they've satisfied all government requirements, since DFO and Transport Canada are both federal departments.
Fox said registration with Transport Canada lets provide safety oversight and guidance to fishing vessel owners, and the recommendation is meant to improve co-ordination between the two main federal departments that oversee the fishing industry.
"Their combined efforts can work to increase awareness and compliance with safety requirements among all commercial fishing harvesters."