HALIFAX — Emergency radio beacons should be mandatory on fishing vessels in an effort to curb fatalities in Canada's deadliest sector, a Senate committee said in a new report.
The report released Thursday from the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans said equipping fishing vessels with emergency position-indicating radio beacons — known as EPIRBs — would help improve response times for search and rescue operations.
It said the commercial fishing industry has the highest fatality rate of any Canadian job — an average of one death per month.
"We strongly believe that EPIRBs will cut down the search time, but most importantly, save lives," said Sen. Fabian Manning during a news conference in Ottawa.
"If we could narrow the time of the search, we'll be able to then move into the rescue part much quicker. Certainly off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, as an example, on a very thick foggy day, it might be very difficult even for a helicopter to find someone."
Beacons transmit an emergency signal to search and rescue authorities, and have a built-in GPS that allows rescuers to accurately locate ships in distress.
Manning said the committee believes about half of all fishing vessels, especially small and medium-sized vessels, do not have EPIRBs.
He said the committee recognizes that the beacons come with a cost — between $250 and $1,000 — and so they're also recommending that the device becomes mandatory in two years.
The report also recommends that the Canadian Coast Guard become a separate statutory agency, making it accountable to the federal transport minister and allowing for more long-term capital planning with predictable funding.
In 1995, the Canadian Coast Guard was transferred to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as part of a cost-savings measure by Jean Chretien's Liberal government.
"Right now, it’s operating over to the side and we believe it will be more effective, more efficient if it was operating on its own," said Manning, the Senate committee's chairman.
"They would be able to, more or less, oversee their own operation, have more say in capital expenditures, more say in revenue generation, more say in how the product is delivered to Canadians."
The coast guard should have a 20-year capital plan to reflect the "need for the fleet's renewal, update and modernization," the report said.
As well, the report makes a number of recommendations aimed at bolstering search and rescue resources in the Canadian Arctic, where marine traffic is forecast to increase.
Manning said there is a "major void" of search and rescue operations in Canada's North, including a lack of facilities and training.
"We understand that we can't have a helicopter in every community. We understand we can't have search and rescue resources everywhere, but we certainly need to be able to address the concerns brought to us by the North," said Manning.
Sen. Marc Gold added that climate change is having a dramatic impact on search and rescue challenges in the North.
"The ice is changing, and climate change has the effect for hunters, trappers, harvesters to have to travel further from their homes to harvest for their family's well-being, and that puts them at greater risk if things go awry," said Gold.
"The communications network in the North is very different from what we're experiencing in the south, and so the challenges are enormous."
Some of the Canadian Arctic-related recommendations include establishing primary search and rescue stations in the North, expanding training operations there, and focusing recruitment efforts on retaining Indigenous employees, especially those proficient in Inuktitut.
Another recommendation is for the Defence Department to authorize a civilian helicopter operator to provide search-and-rescue coverage in the Arctic and in Newfoundland and Labrador, as part of a pilot project.
Manning said a private operator could help reduce search times, especially for emergencies outside of business hours, when crews have left their bases.
A press secretary for the office of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard thanked the Senate committee for the report.
"The safety of those at sea is our top priority and we will be reviewing the recommendations carefully," said Jocelyn Lubczuk in an email statement.
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Aly Thomson, The Canadian Press