Boaters question DFO on distress signal near Cortes Island

Call from went out during recent salmon derby near Campbell River

Some boaters are wondering why Fisheries and Oceans staff didn’t respond to a nearby distress call that went out during the recent salmon derby in Campbell River.

The signal went over the radio around midday on June 9, and ultimately a whale watching boat went to help while waiting for the Coast Guard. It sounded like the boat that made the call had lost engine power in shallow water and was drifting toward rocks.

There were 630 competitors in the salmon derby this year in expanded fishing zones with spots such as Oyster River, Quadra Island and Cortes Island. One of the participants in the derby, Niklos Riley, wonders why Fisheries and Oceans staff in a nearby zodiac did not head toward the location of the signal.

“All us boaters were just kind of looking at each other like, ‘Really? They’re just sitting there, not doing anything…. Just to be silent on the mic, that’s pretty interesting.”

The derby confirmed Fisheries and Oceans staff were checking for barbed hooks, licenses and other potential offences that day.

The signal, Riley says, was “pan-pan” that came from Sutil Point at the south end of Cortes Island, explaining a pan-pan is a signal for imminent danger, though unlike a mayday, there is no immediate risk to life. When a distress signal is sent, all radios are immediately turned to the coast guard frequency, he adds.

“We basically heard the whole transmission,” he said. “Typically, with any distress call, you’d see immediate assistance given.”

A local whale tour boat replied it would assist if necessary and in 10 minutes, Riley says, was at the location to provide help, while a Fisheries and Oceans zodiac with three staff made no effort to contact Coast Guard or provide assistance.

The fishing boat he was on drove near the zodiac and Riley asked if they knew someone was in distress and that the pan-pan was from just six knots from their current location. He describes their responsive as “oh, yeah,” though it was unclear whether they were ignoring the signal it or had not heard it, meaning their radio might not have been on or was malfunctioning.

“It was just kind of surprising to everyone,” Riley says. “Typically, if you hear a pan-pan, you pull your gear out and cut your gear off and go right there and try and help.”

He approached the zodiac about 20 minutes after the pan-pan by which time the whale watch boat had arrived to help the boat that had made the distress call.

Riley has gone fishing in the area many times and says he had never actually heard a pan-pan coming from relatively protected waters around Vancouver Island.

He is concerned by the lack of response, saying he expects the fisheries staff are trained to help with minor rescues and that they had a boat suited to respond quickly to the pan-pan.

“It may have been a minor one, but still it was kind of surprising,” he says. “Usually, you’d see a really quick response out of any agency that deal with water or water rescue.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada responded its officers are trained in minor rescues but does not have any kind of mutual-aid agreement with the Coast Guard.

In response to this incident, the department confirmed its conservation and protection staff were in the area to enforce fishing regulations and were involved in an enforcement action at the time of the pan-pan. Throughout the day, they inspected 49 anglers on 20 vessels and found seven offences for fishing with prohibited gear (barbed hooks), one count of failing to maintain catch records and one count of catching and retaining more than the daily quota for chinook.

A department spokesperson said that at the time of the signal, the officers conducted an assessment, including current weather conditions, number of vessels in the area and whether others were responding. Through this, they were able to determine an immediate response was not necessary. If the situation had been deemed life-threating, they would have assisted with rescue efforts.

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