The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has released its report into the tragic loss of life due to the sinking of the small open fishing vessel Pop’s Pride in September 2016 that shocked the St. John’s community of Shea Heights.
Four fishermen, including three generations of the Walsh family — Eugene, Keith and Keith Jr. — and close friend Billy Humby were lost after their 22-foot boat had overturned off the coast of Cape Spear.
The TSB report found that adverse weather conditions led to the sinking of the boat, and that the fishermen had likely been motivated to head out in those conditions because of certain fisheries regulations and economic pressures.
“The investigation determined that the Pop’s Pride proceeded in weather conditions beyond the normal operating conditions of an open fishing vessel,” a news release with the report states. “The crew’s decision to sail in adverse weather and sea conditions was likely influenced by several factors related to fisheries resource management measures and economic pressures. One such factor was the licence requirement to attend to the fishing gear every 48 hours in order to ensure fresh product and minimize waste.”
The report notes the boat left St. John’s harbour in the early morning hours of Sept. 6, 2016 with the four men onboard to check their cod gillnets. The wind in the area rose that day to 25-30 knots causing significant spray and waves up to two metres high, with water temperature at 12 C.
The report states that once all gillnets were recovered, the load on board the small vessel, combined with the environmental conditions, likely caused the boat to swamp and sink, leaving the four fishermen in the water. No distress signals were received. It wasn’t until 3:39 p.m. that day that family and community members reported the vessel overdue.
“Although the Newfoundland and Labrador Fishery Regulations provide for extensions under exceptional circumstances beyond the fisherman’s control, like inclement weather, this information is not included in the licence conditions document for cod fishing issued by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO),” the release stated. “Another factor that may have influenced the crew’s decision is the weekly fishing quota with no end-of-season date, which was introduced in 2016. Because the closing date was not predetermined, the season could close at any time and, as a result, the crew was likely highly motivated to meet their weekly quota. If fish harvesting measures do not take into account the safety impact on fishermen, there is a risk that they will fish in conditions they would otherwise avoid, thereby compromising the safety of the vessel and crew.
“The investigation also determined that the Pop’s Pride did not have an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), nor was it required by regulation to carry one.”