Search expert applauds provincewide push to keep looking for missing N.L. fishermen

The fishing vessel Island Lady is shown in this undated handout image provided by Dwight Russell. The father of a missing fisherman is asking the coast guard to resume a full search effort in hopes of recovering his son and one crew member of a nine-metre boat that went missing on Friday off the coast of Labrador. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dwight Russell .

A retired coast guard search and rescue coordinator says a provincewide swell of support for two missing Labrador fishermen and their families has resulted in one of the most impressive recovery efforts he’s ever seen.

With several aircraft, a coast guard vessel and a high-tech sonar survey vessel en route to help RCMP efforts, Merv Wiseman said the effort right now should be the standard and not the exception. And it shouldn’t have taken widespread outrage, protests and news releases from politicians to get here, he said in an interview Thursday.

“It shouldn’t have to be that way,” Wiseman said. “And I think we have to continue to hammer away …. This is what we’ve been looking for.”

Labrador doesn’t have a dedicated search and rescue unit, meaning emergency response often depends on the availability of planes and boats that can help until coast guard vessels arrive, he said. And once a search is handed to the police as a recovery mission, efforts often diminish swiftly, Wiseman said.

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Read more: Coast guard helps in RCMP search for fishers, as father calls for all-out effort

He said the disappearance of Marc Russell and Joey Jenkins off Labrador’s southeast coast has shone a floodlight on these issues, and he hopes it will lead to systemic change.

The two men didn’t return home after leaving the small Labrador community of Mary’s Harbour aboard the Island Lady last Friday to fish for cod. Their disappearance has shattered their community of about 340 people, and prompted candlelit vigils on fishing wharfs as far away as Portugal Cove, just outside St. John’s.

Fishing is dangerous and often deadly – seven fishers in the province have been killed on the job since January 2020, figures from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada show – and communities throughout Newfoundland and Labrador are sorely familiar with the pain now gripping Mary’s Harbour.

After Halifax’s Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, which is run by the Canadian Forces and the coast guard, announced Sunday it was handing the search over to the RCMP as a recovery mission, there was a protest outside coast guard offices in St. John’s. The provincial Progressive Conservatives urged the provincial government to step in, and Labrador’s NunatuKavut Community Council called for the JRCC to keep looking.

A demonstration is held at the Canadian Coast Guard station in St. John’s NL on Monday, September 20, 2021. The group were protesting against the suspension of a search by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, after just 48 hours, for two young fishers missing off the coast of Labrador. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly.

As of Thursday, the Canadian Coast Guard ship Captain Molly Kool was still searching with support from provincial planes carrying trained spotters, an RCMP news release said. Divers with the RCMP’s underwater recovery team and a search and rescue team equipped with a side-scan sonar device were expected to join the search Thursday, and the high-tech sonar survey vessel owned by Kraken Robotics was expected to arrive Thursday afternoon.

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That level of effort, especially for a recovery mission, “is the kind of effort that I haven’t seen for a long, long time, if ever,” Wiseman said. “I think that’s because of all the pushback.”

Claude Rumbolt lives in Mary’s Harbour, where he worked with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union for decades and had a direct hand in developing the crab and shrimp fisheries after the cod fishery was closed in 1992.

“Everybody is still keeping their hopes up, but time is winding down,” he said in an interview Wednesday about how people in the town were coping. “It’s hard to lose anybody, particularly when you lose young people, and young people who were just breaking into the fishery on their own.”

Read more: Search continues for fishermen lost off Labrador coast with Coast Guard with on site

Rumbolt said he was always proud nobody had been lost in the shrimp and crab fisheries he helped develop in that area. “And now for this to happen on our doorstep, it’s pretty tough,” he said.

He agrees with Wiseman that the disappearance of Russell and Jenkins has brought Labrador’s lack of dedicated search and rescue units to the forefront, and he also hopes this tragedy will bring about change.

Rumbolt said he’s never understood why there are no dedicated rescue services in Labrador, given the region’s considerable fishing industry and expansive coastline. There are about 300 harvesters with the FFAW union and about 100 fishing enterprises just in the 400-kilometre stretch from L’Anse-au-Clair, beside the Quebec border, to the town of Cartwright, a union spokesperson said in an email Thursday.

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Mary’s Harbour sits about midway between those two towns.

“I hope that this is a wake-up call for everybody to get on with looking at what should be done with search and rescue on this coast … so that we’ve got something here when it’s needed,” Rumbolt said, noting that as the climate changes, the ocean is changing. “As we go forward with a fishery in the future, we’re probably going to run into more obstacles than we have at present.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2021.

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