N.S. vessel overloaded with fish, fuel, ice and freshwater at time of sinking: TSB

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The Atlantic Sapphire, seen here at port in Meteghan, N.S., was trawling for haddock when it sank in 2018. All crew members were rescued without injury. (Steven Kennedy/marinetraffic.com - image credit)
The Atlantic Sapphire, seen here at port in Meteghan, N.S., was trawling for haddock when it sank in 2018. All crew members were rescued without injury. (Steven Kennedy/marinetraffic.com - image credit)

The Transportation Safety Board says a fishing vessel that went down off the coast of Nova Scotia in 2018 was overloaded with fish, ice, fuel and freshwater, leading to its sinking.

In its investigation report released Wednesday, the board said the Atlantic Sapphire should have been carrying no more than 41 long tons of cargo.

When it sank around 11 p.m. on Dec. 13, 2018, the trawler was loaded with over 60 long tons, putting it about 46 per cent over capacity. One long ton is the equivalent of about 1,016 kilograms.

"On the occurrence voyage, the crew caught a full load of fish in less time than on any other trip that year, so there was more fuel, freshwater, and ice on board than usual," the report said.

"The crew did not appreciate the risk to the vessel's stability created by this excess weight, and as a result, the crew did not take precautions against the risk of downflooding and capsizing."

Vessel was overloaded before last catch

Based on evidence collected after the sinking, including interviews with the three-person crew — all of whom were rescued by another fishing boat — the board determined the boat was already overloaded when the crew hauled in a final catch of haddock weighing seven long tons.

Sea conditions caused a "slight rolling motion," which was enough to bring water onto the main deck, which then cascaded into the fish hold through an open hatch.

The crew was busy loading the final catch into pens below deck when the 18.6-metre fibreglass vessel first starting taking on water, so "the situation was not recognized until the fish hold began to downflood," the report said.

Capacity guidelines ignored

Investigators found the cargo limit for the Atlantic Sapphire was laid out by Transport Canada in a "stability booklet" that was available to crew members, said they hadn't consulted the information in at least a year.

Up until its sinking, ignoring those guidelines hadn't had "any apparent impact on safety, indicating that an adaption to the loading procedure had likely evolved over time," the report said.

The report added that the boat's owner, Nova's Finest Fisheries Inc. of Middle West Pubnico, N.S., hadn't been ensuring compliance with the capacity guidelines.

"Consequently, the risks associated with the loading practices on the day of the occurrence, particularly given the extra freshwater and fuel on board, were not fully appreciated by the crew," it said.

No one from Nova's Finest Fisheries was immediately available to comment on the board's findings.

Work-rest requirements not met

The investigation also found the crew hadn't been meeting the work-rest schedule required by federal regulations. Those requirements, the report said, would have been challenging for any three-person crew to accomplish.

"When meeting the regulatory requirements with a crew of three, the time remaining for fishing operations is minimal: about four hours with two crew on deck and another three hours with one crew on deck," the report said.

"Such a minimal amount of time allocated to fishing is not feasible in most operations."

The board pointed out that Nova Scotia has no provincial regulations for fishing vessel operations, nor a minimum crew complement. In 2020, the board identified the need for co-ordinated regulatory oversight between the federal government and provinces as a key safety issue.

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