Feature Story

The Watch

Inside the high-stakes operation that averts disaster on the most dangerous day of the year, in one of the most dangerous industries in Canada.

by Quentin Casey

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t’s still dark on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, the water indistinguishable from the land below, as we peer down at it from a Canadian Air Force CC-130 Hercules. The white lights shining below us look to be the familiar glow of porch lights, streetlights, and car headlights as seen from the air, but as the sun rises above the horizon, we can see these white specks are actually floodlights streaming from hundreds of fishing boats heading out to sea from their ports for the first day of lobster season.

“This is completely insane,” says flight commander Major Gregory Boone, who’s seated next to Captain Joseph Dobson at the controls. “It’s all the way to the horizon.”

The 12-member team on board the Hercules this morning is watching close for an emergency. There are six in the cockpit, and the rest of the team—including two search-and-rescue technicians, two civilian search-and-rescue volunteer spotters, and a military photographer snapping photos from two long panel windows—is back in the plane’s hold. They’re perfectly at ease, even as the plane banks in stomach-churning motion left and right over and over again.

Today is the first day of lobster season—or “dumping day,” the most dangerous day in one of Canada’s most dangerous industries. On the water this morning are roughly 1,500 lobster boats, with more than 5,000 crew, from ports spanning near Halifax, all the way around the tip of Nova Scotia’s South Shore, and up to Digby in the Bay of Fundy. These are lobster fishing areas 33 and 34, the busiest in Canada, and the boats, typically with a crew of four, are headed out to drop traps for the lucrative six-month season, which runs from the last Monday in November until May 31. During the 2016-2017 season, licence holders in areas 33 and 34 landed 30,703 tonnes of lobster, worth half a billion dollars—the second largest landed value on record.

In the predawn hours, more than 1,500 boats, loaded high with traps, make a mad dash for the most coveted positions. It’s a frenzy that often leads to serious injury, and sometimes death.

In the predawn hours of dumping day, all those boats, loaded high with traps, make a mad dash for the most coveted positions, many of which have been passed down unofficially to local captains from their fathers and other relatives. If a fisherman wants to set their traps near a certain shoal or in a particular patch of water, they have to beat everyone else to that location. It’s a frenzy that often leads to serious injury, and occasionally death.

Despite some recent safety improvements, such as the use of larger, more powerful boats that can plow through rough conditions, CCTV cameras for monitoring dangerous work areas, and deckhands increasingly willing to wear life-vests, fishing maintains the highest fatality rate of any employment sector in Canada. More than 200 fishermen have died on the job in Canada since 1999. That’s an average of one death per month. And according to a 2017 Globe and Mail investigation, deckhands are more likely to die at work than pilots, loggers, or oil-and-gas drillers. Being a deckhand is 14 times deadlier than being a police officer.

This knowledge puts a lot of pressure of the rescue teams that keep fishermen safe. Theirs is an expensive, complicated, and stressful job. While waiting for coffee and breakfast omelettes at CFB Greenwood before take-off this morning, the Hercules’s flight crew discussed the tragic events of dumping day 2015, when a man died after falling overboard, as if preparing themselves for the worst-case scenario.

Many Canadians likely don’t realize just how dangerous the lobster fishery is, or the lengths the federal government must go to provide protection and assistance. Fishermen benefit from a multi-million-dollar safety net as they pursue their cold-water catch. On dumping day, aircraft monitor them from above, and Coast Guard ships stay close, ready to act, though the hope is always that none of these measures will be needed. Needed or not, I wanted to see firsthand how the rescuers work to keep fishing crews safe‍.

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he wind was moderate from the north on Monday, November 30, 2015, and the seas about a metre high—decent conditions for setting lobster pots. Nathan King and Wayne Atwood were crewing for King’s father that morning on the Nomada Queen I. The pair were standing on a tall stack of traps, tossing the first line of 20 traps over the stern of the boat when a rail, which had been supporting the stack on the starboard side, suddenly broke off. Gear, including the traps King and Atwood were standing on, spilled over the side. An avalanche of traps, heavy anchors, buoys, and line plunged into the six-degree water, taking the two men down with it. “My first thought was, ‘This is going to be cold,’” King says.

Underwater, King couldn’t swim because rope was tangled around his feet. He grabbed a knife he kept strapped to his boot and began frantically cutting, but the water was so filled with bubbles that it was impossible to see if he was actually slicing the line. Then, just before he ran out of breath, his lifejacket inflated, propelling him to the surface, where he emerged in the mess of gear. “It all happened so fast,” he says. “When I come to the top of the water I didn’t really know what was going on.”

He was shocked by the cold. He couldn’t breathe. Heavy gear was still falling all around him from the boat. And he could hear Atwood in the water nearby screaming: “We’re gonna die! We’re gonna drown!”

The two men managed to swim to each other, and then clung to the hull near the wheelhouse at the front of the boat to avoid the traps falling off the side and stern. They stayed there, in the near-freezing water, for more than 30 minutes before their crewmates managed to haul them aboard using a hoist and piece of rope. King was okay, just soaked and cold. But Atwood needed medical attention for shock and mild hypothermia.

Two search and rescue technicians were lowered down to the boat from a Cormorant helicopter that had flown over to retrieve Atwood and take him to shore. He was treated in Yarmouth, spent the night in hospital, and quit the next day.

An avalanche of traps, heavy anchors, buoys, and line plunged into the six-degree water, taking the two men down with it. “My first thought was, ‘This is going to be cold.'"

About 35 kilometres away from King and Atwood’s accident, Captain Todd Nickerson was at the wheel of the Cock-a-Wit Lady as his crew set their first string of traps more than 40 kilometres off Cape Sable Island. Veteran crewmember Keith Stubbert was at the stern when a trap snagged on the port-side guardrail. As Stubbert went over to free it, he stepped on a coil of fishing line just as it started to pull tight. The rope coiled like a snare around his leg, and as the traps and the line went into the water, they pulled him down with them off the boat.

Like King and Atwood, Stubbert was wearing a life-vest, but this time it didn’t matter: the weight of the traps held him underwater. And when the crew tried to pull him in, the line snapped. Finally, they managed to grab the other end of the line, hauled up three traps, and then Stubbert. He’d been under water for 10 minutes and didn’t have a pulse.

The crew sent out a distress call, which was picked up by a patrolling Hercules. But there were 40 similar Cape Island lobster boats in the area, and rescue technicians ended up parachuting down to the wrong one.

The rescuers eventually made it to the correct boat, but it was too late. Stubbert was airlifted to Yarmouth Regional Hospital, and pronounced dead shortly after. He died the same way as his father, and so many other fishermen had. According to the Transportation Safety Board, 55 people died on Canadian fishing vessels between 1999 and August 2015 simply by falling overboard.

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n mid-November of last year, at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Halifax, Major Mark Norris, a 37-year-old Hercules pilot with the Canadian Forces’ search-and-rescue unit, was poring over the plan for dumping day. “We want to make sure all our resources are ready,” he says. “We want to be able to respond as quickly and as efficiently as possible, because it is such a big event and we know it’s high-risk.”

The Halifax JRCC is one of three rescue centres run jointly by the military and the Canadian Coast Guard. It’s staffed 24-7 by five coordinators—a mix of Coast Guard and Air Force officers responsible for managing all air and marine search-and-rescue operations in the Atlantic provinces, the eastern half of Quebec, the southern half of Baffin Island, and a massive swath of the western North Atlantic. It’s 5.5 million square kilometres in total, from the 45th to 70th parallels, 80 percent of which is covered by water. A large satellite photo hanging just outside of the JRCC’s operations room shows off that expanse. It’s almost baffling.

On that same wall, there’s also a list of the Coast Guard and military personnel who have died during search-and-rescue operations in the area since 1953: 29 Air Force members and seven Coast Guard officers. At the bottom of the list is a motto: “That Others May Live.”

During emergencies, the JRCC Halifax team collects and distributes information, investigates, and coordinates the deployment and movement of rescue assets—typically Coast Guard vessels and Air Force Hercules planes and Cormorant helicopters, two of which are permanently on standby at CFB Greenwood for missions.

Norris tells me JRCC’s planning for dumping day begins six months before, when rescue personnel meet with local fishing associations to talk about safety preparations. Captains are encouraged to register their emergency-position-indicating radio beacons with the Canadian Beacon Registry, which is housed at the Canadian Mission Control Centre at CFB Trenton in Ontario. (When set off by a crew, or activated automatically underwater, these beacons notify rescue teams of a boat’s location, and give information about the vessel and its crew.) Then, in the weeks leading up to dumping day, JRCC personnel book planes and helicopters, and schedule extra Coast Guard crews.

On dumping day, Norris will have four Coast Guard cutters (vessels built for speed) on the water, along with the two “high-endurance” vessels—the 62-metre Cape Roger and the 68-metre Sir Wilfred Grenfell. And as the lobster boats in area 34 head out at 6 a.m., a Hercules, which has a flying-time operating cost of $13,350 per hour, and a Cormorant helicopter, which flies at $21,150 per hour, will take off from CFB Greenwood. “We’re pre-positioning,” says Norris. “We’re anticipating that something is going to go wrong.”

Master Corporal Ashley Barker and Sergeant Robert Featherstone check their gear in the Hercules aircraft on dumping day.  Photo: Corporal Daniel Salisbury, 14 Wing Imaging

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n Friday, November 24, Jimmy Newell is sitting at his desk in the Clark’s Harbour Coast Guard Station on Cape Sable Island, 200 kilometres southwest of Halifax. He’s an ex-fisherman who grew up in Clark’s Harbour and started in the Coast Guard, where his father also worked, after a downturn in the fishing industry in the early 1980s. This time of year always makes him anxious. “I didn’t sleep the night before dumping day when I was fishing,” he says, “and I don’t sleep the night before dumping day now.”

After a week of preparation, the station’s crew have all their equipment inspected and double-checked, and they’ve started monitoring the long-range weather forecast. All there is to do now is wait for updates from JRCC Halifax, and for the results of an upcoming conference call between JRCC, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and port representatives from the two fishing areas, to decide whether dumping day will go ahead on Monday as scheduled, or whether they’ll have to postpone until Tuesday because of bad weather.

Newell gets up from his desk and leads me out of the office to the wharf where he boards the Clark’s Harbour, the Coast Guard station’s cutter, one of two Coast Guard boats heading out from the town on dumping day. Both boats will be stocked with extra pumps, a stretcher, bottles of oxygen, and a first-aid station at the stern.

Canadian Coast Guard officer Jimmy Newell doesn’t sleep the night before dumping day.

In a typical year, the Clark’s Harbour station responds to 50 emergency calls in the first six weeks of the lobster season, more than a third of the total calls for the entire year. Ten years ago, there were 27 calls in the first week alone.

The events of 2015 stand out for Newell. Stubbert’s death, especially, lingers with him. Something became clear to him then: the drills, preparation, and inspections sometimes just aren’t enough to keep every fisherman alive. “Accidents happen. It’s a sad reality of this business,” says Newell. “There are going to be times when everything is done perfectly and people are still going to die.”

Nearby, Todd Newell—a distant relation of Jimmy’s—is one of the few captains at the West Head Wharf, loading his traps and baiting them with mackerel and redfish. The possibility of postponement has kept most of the fishermen at home.

Lobster harvester Todd Newell stacks the 375 traps he and his crew took out on dumping day 2017.

He admits he’s worried about the coming season. “I’m a nervous type,” he says, standing on the deck, small puddles of fish blood pooling near his boots. “I’m anxious to get going.”

This will be the 42-year-old’s first year as captain, and his first fishing without his father, Ted, who died in June at age 69. The pair fished together for 24 years. “He was one of them old-school fishermen,” he says of his father. “I just wish he was here, just to lean on him for advice… But maybe it’s best in the long run that I learn on my own, too.”

He’s trying to acquaint himself with a new boat, an untested 47-footer called Ted’s Legacy. At $550,000, it’s a massive investment in an industry known for up-and-down prices. “Our old boat,” he says, “I knew exactly where to put every pot because we loaded it the same for so many years.”

Newell eventually turns to join a crewman, lugging the heavy traps into place. It will take them seven or eight hours to load their limit of 375 traps.

“We’ll be fine,” he says before turning away. “I’m sure.”

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Hercules plane is a military workhorse, capable of hauling nearly 100,000 pounds of cargo. Today the plane is carrying a slew of search and rescue equipment, including four pump kits, self-inflating life rafts, and satellite locator buoys, which can be parachuted off the rear cargo ramp to boats below.

The belly of a Hercules is cold, loud, and cavernous. The four propellers outside rattle the fuselage like a toy. Major Mark Norris had warned me as much. He also said I should fly on a full stomach (“It makes me feel better to have something in my guts,” he explained), and advised taking Imodium since only a curtain conceals the toilet from the rest of the crew’s view.

Back in the hold, Master Corporal Ashley Barker, a search-and-rescue tech for five years, is waterproofing a medical kit. “You don’t want to go anywhere without your medical kit,” she says over the drone of the four Allison engines. Her partner, Sergeant Robert Featherstone, fills an insulated mug with coffee. “Lots of sugar,” he says with a smile. “That’s the only way to make it taste good.” The pair appears completely relaxed, considering that they could get a distress call any given time and be jumping out the back of the plane.

“Accidents happen. It’s a sad reality of this business. There are going to be times when everything is done perfectly and people are still going to die.”

Up front, Dobson steers the plane side to side, so the crew in the cockpit and two spotters in the hold get a good view of the action below. I’ve decided to go back up front where I stare desperately at the horizon in an attempt to calm my stomach.

At one point the crew spots a strobe light flashing on a boat below, and we circle to investigate, but there’s no emergency. Later, we spot steam spewing from another vessel but, again: no crisis. And after six hours of flying, and no emergency calls from JRCC, the crew turns the plane back toward CFB Greenwood. The day ends without a serious incident—exactly what everyone was hoping for. The only action logged by the search and rescue techs involved injecting me with Gravol, disposing of my two barfs bags, and dumping me back at Greenwood early.

But with six months of winter and spring fishing ahead, everyone knows there are plenty of distress calls to come.

The view from a CC-130 Hercules near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, on dumping day 2017.
Photo: Corporal Daniel Salisbury, 14 Wing Imaging

Words – Quentin Casey

Quentin Casey is a journalist based in Mahone Bay, N.S. He writes regularly for the Financial Post, Atlantic Business, and Saltscapes. He recently won the Robbie Robertson Dartmouth Book Award for his 2017 book, The Sea Was In Their Blood: The Disappearance of the Miss Ally’s Five-Man Crew.

Photos – Quentin Casey and Corporal Daniel Salisbury

Edited by Chelsea Murray

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