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Swissair Tragedy

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Anxious fishermen asked to be patient

Susan Corkum-Greek
Lighthouse staff

 COUNTY - While hesitant to complain about their situation, many Lunenburg County fishermen, confined to their wharves in the wake of the Swissair disaster September 2, were getting anxious to return to sea last week.

 Increasingly poor weather conditions heading into the fall, make this a prime time for activities such as gillnetting or bait fishing. It is also the prime season for the lucrative St. Margarets Bay tuna fishery.

 But fishermen calling a special Fisheries Operations Centre set up at Peggy's Cove last week could get no clear indication as to when the exclusion zone, set up to control traffic around the crash investigation site, might be lifted. As of Friday, it still ran from Eastern Points in Lunenburg County to Ketch Harbour, Halifax County.

 Coast Guard communications officer Scott Verret said officials "understand the serious inconvenience this is imposing on . . . fishermen primarily, but also a lot of recreational boaters in Mahone Bay and St. Margarets Bay.

 "The Coast Guard has the full intention of reducing or eliminating the zone as soon as possible," he said. However, when that will happen is "impossible to say."

 Mr. Verret said it is "up to the Transportation Safety Board and RCMP to decide when the investigation in that area can't go any further, there's no more debris that can be recovered and that it's no longer practical to have the exclusion zone." The situation is reviewed on a daily basis.

 In the meantime, the Coast Guard together with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have set up the Peggy's Cove-based operations centre as a way for fishermen to stay informed. The centre is also co-ordinating a system whereby fishermen who have either fixed gear or aquaculture sites within the zone can be escorted out to them.

 In this way, any gear that is removed can be checked for evidence or debris, said Fisheries spokesman David Jennings, and catches can also be checked "to make sure they're okay."

 But that doesn't help gillnet fishermen who, while they fish outside of the exclusion zone, must pass through it on their way to and from the fishing grounds. Last week, many had planned to depart for the Bay of Fundy but by Friday had still been unable to make the necessary arrangements.

 "We have been talking about a convoy system," said John Levy of the South Shore Gillnetters Association. However, it remained unclear whether boats escorted out of the exclusion zone would be able to return should weather conditions change.

 Some gillnetters had considered moving their boats further up the coast to ports such as Lunenburg. But there are no guarantees that the exclusion zone, which currently ends at Cross Island in Lunenburg Bay, will not be expanded as debris drifts further south.

 Mr. Levy, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary who has participated in the investigation, said he can understand the need to control vessel traffic within the exclusion zone but hopes officials will try to accommodate fishermen as much as possible.

 "Time's against us," he said, referring both to weather conditions and the fact that at the end of the month, gillnetters, who can currently fish up to 30 miles offshore, are restricted to just 12 miles from shore.

 Some provincial politicians are now saying the government should compensate fishermen for their losses. However, to date, the fishermen themselves have said very little on that front. Most feel it is inappropriate in light of the tragedy still lingering over their communities. Nonetheless, many have been contacted by law firms interested in pursuing their case.

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