Don Purchase has been fishing all his life, but last Tuesday night was one of his roughest nights on the water.
The Port aux Basques fisher was taking advantage of the 24-hour window for halibut fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He was about eight miles north of Cape Ray when the fishery opened at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning.
Twelve hours later the weather had turned and he was facing gale force winds as he tried to pilot his boat back to Port aux Basques.
“I lurched my way under Red Rocks to get shelter,” he said. “Then I left Red Rocks and I went down around the cape (Cape Ray). I was 8 hours going 16 miles. I came around the cape doing three and four knots. That’s how bad I had it.”
He said he was fearful for his life on the return journey, with winds gusting well over 100 kilometers an hour.
When he arrived back in Port aux Basques he had more bait waiting for him, but he couldn’t face the prospect of going back on the water for more fish.
“The pounding and the risk I took last night, I couldn’t do it,” he said on Wednesday. “I was too tired.”
Mr. Purchase said he took a financial loss for his time on the water. He is angry at the Fish Food and Allied Workers union (FFAW) for not heeding calls to delay the fishery given the weather forecast.
Codroy Fisher Roy Fowlow also took a hit in his pocketbook. But what really bothers him is the risk he faced to go after halibut.
“We had some hell of a time from Cape Anguille to down here,” he said.
Mr. Fowlow and his three crewmembers had some tense moments on their journey back to Codroy.
“You couldn’t get out on deck to tie nothing down,” he said. “We had to cut her back then. We were doing three knots.”
He said if his motor had given out, or if his boat had started taking on water, he probably wouldn’t be around to talk about the journey.
On Tuesday afternoon, DFO sent out a release saying the fishery would be extended five hours due to the poor weather forecast in the southern gulf. Mr. Fowlow called the extension “a joke.”
“The blame is on DFO but the biggest part of the blame is on the union,” he said. “What they’re doing is they’re playing with peoples lives here. They’re forcing us out into a death trap.”
Jason Spingle, the West Coast Representative for the FFAW, said he did receive a few calls from concerned fishers on the southwest coast on the day before the fishery.
“I contacted the department immediately and their opinion was they didn’t have any feedback,” he said.
Mr. Spingle said the forecast was calling for high winds in the Cabot Strait, but not necessarily in the gulf itself.
“In hindsight I suppose the Cabot Strait encompasses part of 4R,” said Mr. Spingle. The 4R area is the NAFO division that encompasses waters off the west coast of Newfoundland.
He said the bottom line was that they didn’t have any complaints until the day before the fishery.
“In this case here because of the lack of and late feedback, it didn’t change,” he said.
He said there are lessons to learn from this, and it is never the union’s intention to have any portion of its members affected by bad weather. In this case, he said 4R is a huge area and the forecast can vary wildly over hundreds of kilometers.
A spokesman for DFO said in an email that the department was monitoring the weather conditions beginning on June 20, watching for a suitable weather window.
“After reviewing the most current marine weather broadcast, a decision was made in consultation with FFAW on June 26 to extend the closing time from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. based on an unexpected poor marine weather forecast for overnight and into the morning,” wrote the spokesperson in an email.
Mr. Fowlow said he wants to see the fishery reopened for affected fishers. He said given a second chance in good weather, he might be able to make a decent return rather than facing a loss.
“They should start off, wipe the slate clean, and have another 24 hours,” he said.
However, the DFO spokesman said the department was anticipating the total allowable catch would be met by the revised closing time.