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Early Coast Guard shutdown threatens sailors

“When ships get in trouble, who are they going to call?”



Coast guard workers say cutbacks could spell trouble for sailors around Nunavut and Nunavik, possibly leaving them stranded with no way of calling for help.
The federal government’s annual shutdown of the coast guard’s communication centre in Iqaluit came two weeks earlier than expected, on Nov. 12, while fishing trawlers and fuel tankers are still sailing the eastern Arctic.

Northern fishermen say the cutbacks come at a bad time of year, when storms develop with little warning, and sea ice begins to close up the waters of the Davis Straight between Greenland and Baffin Island.

The shutdown marked the third time in three years that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has cut back on safety services in the eastern Arctic.

According to official records, the federal government already trimmed the coast guard’s working season by two weeks in 2002.

The coast guard also dropped Inuktitut services, last year. They had been offered for three years, after they were criticized for their handling of a failed search and rescue operation. Eight Iqaluit residents died on a hunting trip Oct. 30, 1994, after their boat capsized.

A union representative for local coast guard workers believes the cutbacks in Iqaluit show the government plans to close local operations permanently.

“This is just the beginning,” Peter Fraser said while visiting Iqaluit last week. “It’s going to get worse.

“This government is very short-sighted. It [the cuts] will look good on paper, it’ll save a lot of money.

“But when ships get in trouble, who are they going to call?”

When it’s open, the centre helps over 170 shipping and fishing companies every year, the equivalent of 30 boats a day. The ships’ crews mainly call the Iqaluit station for weather warnings. But they also ask them for advice about sea ice build-up, and how to best land safely near a community.

The station, which operates 24 hours a day during the regular season, is also a first point of contact when ships have an accident, such as a diesel spill.

Coast guard management said the early shutdown of the communication centre won’t put sailors or the environment at risk because the boats can still call for help using satellite phones.

Those calls would now have to go to Thunder Bay or Sarnia, Ont., where staff would signal the coast guard icebreaker, the Louis St. Laurent, which will remain in Frobisher Bay until the end of the month.

“The coast guard is in the business of safety,” said Lawrie Lachapelle, coast guard superintendent for the Arctic and central region. “And we take that very seriously.

“It was not felt that this [cutback] would really compromise safety.”

However, management could not confirm whether the ships traveling the Davis Strait and Frobisher Bay until December were equipped with the necessary technology to contact the coast guard in the South. Fishermen, union officials and low-level coast guard management warn that relying on satellite phones is dangerous, because they malfunction in storms, and often short-circuit when there’s an electrical accident on board the ship.

The ice-breaking tanker, Tuvaq, will be one of several boats navigating the Arctic Ocean, without local support from the coast guard. The ship, owned by the Labrador-based business, the Woodward Group, broke its hull when it hit ice while traveling in Nunavut earlier this year.

Nunavut fishermen are also at sea. Jerry Ward, CEO of the Baffin Fisheries Coalition, said his group has about five boats still fishing, and says they deserve the back-up support of the Iqaluit coast guard station.

“You never know when you will need them,” Ward said. “If we knew when there was going to be an accident or a problem, then we’d be fine. But we don’t know that. There’s uncertainty. The service should be available as long as there’s vessels fishing in that area.”

The Iqaluit station is scheduled to re-open in late May or early June.

This year’s cutbacks will save an estimated $25,000. It costs about $800,000 per year to run marine communications from Iqaluit. One union official said they would save more money by training and hiring Inuit from the region, instead of bringing up staff from the South.

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