Swept off the stern:  Approved safety exemption contributed to Shelburne County fisherman’s death

Open stern, lack of planning part of 2015 tragedy

Published on March 3, 2016

SHAG HARBOUR – An investigation into a fisherman’s death last year off Cape Sable Island says common practices on lobster boats could be putting lives at risk.

According to a Transportation Safety Board (TSB) report released March 3, an exemption from safety rules granted to a number of boats contributed to Larry Wayne Sears’ death.

The Shag Harbour man fell overboard March 9, 2015,  through the open stern of his boat, Four Ladies 2003, when a wave-tossed lobster trap hit him and threw him overboard.

According to the investigation, the crew wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the emergency.


Regulators approved exemption


Safety issues surrounding working with an open stern on a boat are highlighted by the investigation.

Small Fishing Vessel Inspection Regulations require bulwarks, rails, chains, wire rope or any combination of these to be fitted around the weather deck of a fishing vessel.

However, Transport Canada had granted an exemption for the Four Ladies 2003. The investigation points out most vessels in southwest Nova Scotia have been granted this exemption. The intent is to prevent interference with fishing operations.


Into rough waters


On March 9, 2015, the Four Ladies 2003 with its three-person crew left Shag Harbour to relocate lobster traps. Three strings of traps had been hauled and stowed when the weather began to deteriorate. The boat headed for shallower water, leaving the stern gate open.

The sea was rough and the water temperature was 3 Celsius. The vessel was approximately 15 nautical miles south of Cape Sable Island when a wave hit the port side, knocking traps over. Crewmembers retrieved and secured the traps.

At 9 p.m., three hours after the vessel had left port, another wave struck. More gear toppled, some falling over the open stern. Not wanting to lose the gear, a crewmember moved to the stern and began to haul the rope attached to a trap and anchor. The other men joined him. Five minutes later another wave hit, knocking about six stacked traps onto the deck.

 “Upon impact, one of the crewmembers was thrown to the centre of the deck and the master was thrown overboard,” reads the report.

The captain and crew all wore PFDs and Sears’ inflated as he hit the water. The vessel was put in reverse to retrieve him. One of the crewmembers hooked Sears’ PFD with a gaff and the other crewmember grabbed his arms. They tied a rope under his arms and secured it to the boat.

“(They) tried multiple times to haul him on board, but were unable to do so,” reads the report. By this time, Sears had lost consciousness. A distress call had been made.

The fishing vessel 3 P’s and a Pa responded at 9:40 p.m. That boat’s crew managed, with difficulty, to haul Sears up. He had been in the water for an hour.  Despite great effort by the crew of the two boats and the Canadian Coast Guard, Sears, 64, died.


Safety plan needed, open sterns a risk


The TSB investigation highlights the need for crews to prepare for emergencies, saying there should have been a safety plan for approaching the open stern, like having a lifeline. It was noted the master and crew had not practiced emergency drills such as person overboard, fire, or abandon ship drills.

Life rings couldn’t be grabbed in an emergency as they were in a mesh container with their lines tied off with cable ties. No re-boarding devices were on board, although regulations did not require this.

The TSB says the crew put themselves in danger of also falling overboard while trying to rescue Sears.

The vessel had a trap hauler and a cargo boom with a hydraulic winch. Both devices can be rigged for retrieval of a person overboard. But “these tools and methods need to be identified and practiced in advance to help ensure quick and successful recovery,” states the report.

The Transportation Safety Board conducted its investigation with the hope of preventing further deaths in the fishing industry.  Currently there is one fishing-related death each month in Canada.



FOur things to know


  1. The TSB says most fishermen in N.S. with Cape Island-style fishing vessels accept the risk of lobster fishing with the stern open,  evidenced by the widespread use of these vessels.


2. The TSB says if vessels are granted an exemption and there is no other requirement for safeguards to address the hazards posed by an open stern, there is risk that these hazards will go unaddressed.


3. Without guidance or policies in place about working safely near the stern, crews are not prompted to consider other options, such as using a lifeline or cutting the gear loose, the TSB says.


4. Without proper tools, rescuing someone who goes overboard is a “task that can be a very difficult, if not impossible, task for one or two people,” says the TSB.