HALIFAX — As a snowstorm descended on Nova Scotia and the search for five missing scallop fishermen was suspended Thursday, an industry leader said there was evidence to suggest their boat had suddenly capsized in the Bay of Fundy earlier this week.
Alain d'Entremont, president of the Full Bay Scallop Association in Yarmouth, N.S., said the 15-metre Chief William Saulis, with six fishermen aboard, did not issue a mayday distress call via VHF radio before the boat sank Tuesday around 6 a.m.
The body of one fisherman was found on Tuesday night. The boat has yet to be found.
"Our initial thought, as an industry, is that the vessel likely met with something catastrophic that did not allow whoever was at the wheel to at least get a mayday out or a distress signal of some sort," d'Entremont said Thursday.
"The vessels' crews talk regularly, and there's cellphone coverage in the area ... It would have been easy for the captain or whoever was operating the vessel to say, 'I feel like something's wrong.' "
As well, all of the boats in the scallop fleet — between 40 and 70 vessels — have VHF radios equipped with something called digital selective calling, which is essentially a panic button that can send an emergency signal to boats in the area. The signal includes the vessel's identity number and, if the radio is attached to a global positioning system, its location.
"The fact is that the vessel did not put an alert out, and did not even indicate that they were in trouble," said d'Entremont, who is also president of Scotia Harvest Inc., a seafood company based in Digby, N.S.
The company that owns and operates the boat, Yarmouth Sea Products, said in a statement that "it appears the vessel capsized."
The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax knew there was a problem with the 56-tonne scallop dragger at 5:50 a.m. when the centre received a signal from an Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), which is automatically triggered when submerged.
Staff at the centre and the boat's owners would have tried to contact the boat's crew through VHF radio, mainly to determine if the EPIRB was malfunctioning or if it had been accidentally dropped into the water, d'Entremont said. Hearing nothing, the centre would have them sent out a general call for help to boats in the area.
The dragger was plowing through three-metre waves near Delaps Cove, N.S., when it sank.
The boats that went out to search for the vessel encountered "miserable conditions" as the wind was gusting hard and the bay was experiencing unusually high tides, d'Entremont said.
"When the weather breezes up worse than expected, the boats talk and sometimes stay in a group or wait for each other," d'Entremont said. "None of that happened in this case."
As well, searchers received a particularly bad omen on Tuesday when they discovered the dragger's two empty life-rafts on the shore near Hillsburn, N.S.
When a fishing boat founders, its life-rafts are designed to float to the surface, self-inflate and break free of the vessel if it goes to the bottom.
On another front, d'Entremont said he was told that the body of the fisherman recovered Tuesday was not wearing a personal flotation device or an immersion suit — another indication pointing to a rapid demise.
Meanwhile, close friends and relatives continued to come forward Thursday to share fond memories of the crew: Aaron Cogswell, Leonard Gabriel, Daniel Forbes, Michael Drake, Eugene Francis and the boat's captain, Charles Roberts.
Scott Deveau, a close friend of Gabriel and a fellow Yarmouth fisherman, said Gabriel was always comfortable on the water and, as a natural storyteller, often found himself at the centre of attention.
Deveau also said Roberts, whose nickname was "Hotdog," was an experienced captain who was well acquainted with the Bay of Fundy.
“If I had to be on a boat in a storm, Hotdog would be the guy I'd want to be with,” he said Thursday.
Lori Phillips, Cogswell's mother, said her son was a well-loved man and a hard worker who had fished with Roberts for seven years.
The 29-year-old from Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley was on the autism spectrum and sometimes struggled with mental health issues, Phillips said.
"I just want my boy to be known for who he is, the great guy that he was," Phillips said. "I don't want him to be known as a victim of the ocean. He's more than somebody that's lost in that sea."
Drake was from Fortune, N.L., where neighbours have come together to comfort his family. "We're a small town of about 1,400 people, so any tragedy hits hard," said Mayor Charles Penwell. "We will do our best to help the family members get through this."
The RCMP assumed the lead role in the shoreline search on Wednesday at 5 p.m. after the rescue co-ordination centre decided there was no hope that crews aboard military aircraft or coast guard vessels would find any survivors.
The scallop fleet on the Bay of Fundy typically produces 1,200 tonnes of scallop meat annually, generating up to $30 million. Overall, the industry in Nova Scotia, which includes an offshore fleet that fishes on Georges Bank, generates about $200 million annually.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2020
Michael MacDonald and Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press