450 Sealers Trapped... - 04/25/2007
100 vessels caught, 55 men rescued, running low on food, water

Canadian Coast Guard officials kept a vigilant watch late last week and over the weekend over 100 sealing boats stuck in thick, heaving ice off the coast of Newfoundland. 17 of the boats are considered at serious risk. 55 men had been choppered to safety by the weekend.

While as many as 450 sealers are still stranded, officials are most concerned about approximately 70 sealers on those 17 boats, which have damaged hulls or missing props.

"They are the most crucial," said Christopher Fitzgerald, a marine search and rescue coordinator with the coast guard.

The strong Northeaster that ravaged the eastern seaboard of the U.S. April 14-17, kept on going northeast and pushed pack ice toward the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Over 100 vessels were out hunting for seal pups amongst the ice flows, but were trapped in what some seamen called the worst storm during sea pup harvesting season in 20 to 30 years. A few vessels were caught in pack ice off the south coast.

"The ice pressure is so great that the vessels are actually lifted out of the water onto the ice and, of course, they could fall over onto their sides."

None of those ships' captains had asked to be rescued, although some crew members were transferred onto nearby boats that had no damage. "We ask them to declare a distress and we'll send our search and rescue helicopter and we'll take them off, but they don't want to leave their vessels. It's their livelihoods they'd rather stay with their boat," Fitzgerald said. (Subsequently, 55 seamen were rescued by the Canadian Coast Guard.)

"If the boat gets crushed, they'd just step out onto the ice. "Capt. Elezar O'Brien and his crew of three have been stuck since Saturday night, April 14, off the coast of St-Augustine, Que. He told CBC his crew was not in immediate danger, but they were low on water and fuel. "We're just moving around through the ice a bit, trying to keep her in through the ice so we don't drift ashore. (But) if the wind changes now we could be in danger, but so far we haven't had any wind since we've been here."

Most of the boats are about 35' to 65' long and have a crew of three to four people, although some could have up to eight people on board. They were sealing Friday, April 13, 80 to 100 kilometers offshore when strong northeast winds pushed massive ice sheets around their boats.

The concern is that when the wind shifts and the ice breaks up, the boats will begin to take on water and the coast guard will be forced to scramble to rescue the sealers. "Hopefully, there might be an ease in pressure on the ice and then these vessels will start to get back into the water and we will find out then just what is going to float and what isn't," Fitzgerald said.

Some of the vessels have been stranded for 11 days and are running low on water and food. Some vessels have placed orders with the Canadian Coast Guard and helicopters have re-provisioned them.

On Thursday, three coast guard icebreakers worked to free the stranded boats. The Sir Wilfred Grenfell icebreaker itself was freed Thursday -- after being stuck last Wednesday -- however officials said the Ann Harvey, another ice breaker working in the area, had become caught in the ice. Two helicopters flew over the area Thursday, surveying the situation and dropping off food and water to the sealers. As well, Cormorant helicopters were on standby for rescue missions.

Since being stranded, many of the fishermen have angrily denounced the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for decisions they claim led to their predicament. They said the department should have waited for the ice to clear before allowing the seal hunt. The hunt had only been postponed by one day.

Newfoundland Liberal MP Gerry Byrne demanded Thursday that the federal government extend Employment Insurance benefits for sealers who couldn't take part in the fishery due to ice conditions.