John Stevens and his brother Nick have over 100 years of commercial fishing experience combined on the B.C. coast and they’ve had their share of close calls.

“I did have a boat that burnt up,” said Nick Stevens. “We were close to another boat and we all jumped in the skiff when it got too bad.”

In B.C.’s long maritime history, countless fishermen have died and photos of the vessels they were on are all that’s left.

The Caledonia went down off Estevan Point north of Tofino in September 2015 taking three lives, while the Miss Cory sank off Comox in 2017 taking one man to the bottom, just two examples in a long list of commercial fishing tragedies.

“It’s always a tragedy but you know a lot of us have been working over the years to bring those numbers down,” said John Stevens. “Most fishermen are quite concerned about things like that.”

In 2017, there were three commercial fishing deaths across Canada, but so far this year, almost six times as many people have died causing red flags with the national Transportation Safety Board (TSB).

“The annual death toll has climbed to its highest level in a decade. Seventeen fatalities this year already,” said TSB Chair Kathy Fox at a press conference in Gatineau, Quebec.

The TSB blames most of the deaths on the lack of life jackets.

“Because while more and more fish harvesters recognize the value of wearing a life jacket or using an emergency signalling device, there are still many who don’t,” said Fox.

Most of the deaths this year have happened in Atlantic Canada, though the three Tofino men who went down with their boat this summer are included. Only one body has been found.

However, a walk along the Comox commercial fishing dock reveals that many of the boats do have personal flotation devices (PFD) on board and brothers Nick and John say most fishermen on the B.C. coast now wear PFD’s.

“FishSafe, it’s a division of WorkSafeBC and the program is written by fishermen for fishermen and it’s been very successful at getting fishermen to wear life jackets and be safer,” said John Stevens.

The number of fishing vessel deaths continues to fluctuate year to year. For example, there were 17 deaths in 2004, eight in 2016, three in 2017 and 17 again so far this year.

Of the 63 fishing vessel deaths between 2011 and 2017, almost 43 per cent were due to a crew member falling overboard and 35 per cent blamed on the stability of the vessel.

The TSB is calling on Transport Canada to issue user-friendly guidelines on vessel stability.

The TSB report can be found here.

Dean Stoltz