ARCHIVED - Improving the safety of fishing boats

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November 01, 2010— Ottawa, Ontario

As global competition sharpens for declining fish stocks, many Canadian fishers now find themselves piloting small boats - which their forefathers might barely recognize - into unfamiliar waters to catch new species.

The NRC Institute for Ocean Technology (NRC-IOT) is working with Transport Canada and the fishing industry to develop an assessment tool to rate the safety limits of rapidly evolving classes of small fishing vessel designs. If the fishing industry, naval architects and regulators approve of the first draft at a November meeting in Ottawa, it will likely presage a larger program to make life safer for men and women who earn their livings in about 30,000 registered fishing boats.

Transport Canada and industry groups are seeking a methodical way to judge whether a fleet design is safe, and so they turned to NRC-IOT for unbiased analysis. Naval architects often say they "know" when a boat "looks right." The new NRC tool aims to back such gut-level assessments with hard evidence.

A fishing boat model undergoes testing at NRC-IOT.

A fishing boat model undergoes testing at NRC-IOT.

NRC researchers built the tool using several types of data, says project leader Dr. Ayhan Akinturk. For example, they examined results from dozens of past model tests conducted in NRC-IOT wave tanks, but their main focus was on real people in real boats. Tool developers took a statistical look at fleet safety records for different boat designs - to find out whether particular types are accident-prone - and analyzed the ability of different designs to right themselves in a roll. The team also looked at weather conditions (wind, waves and ice) during accidents as well as how fleet vessels were operated, including what gear was used and how fishing license conditions (e.g. were catches stowed on deck or below?) may have affected handling.

The aim of the new tool is to create a filter that Transport Canada and the fishing industry feel confident they can use to zero in on the riskiest types of vessels, and suggest how to improve their design.

Three decades ago on the East Coast, regulations limited certain small boat types to lengths up to 24 metres. Since then, fleet operators and designers, driven by growing competition, have struggled to increase the capacity and profitability of fishing vessels by expanding their hulls and superstructures in every other dimension.

Wave tank data contributed to the development of the fishing vessel assessment tool.

Wave tank data contributed to the development of the fishing vessel assessment tool.

As boats grew wider, deeper and higher, designers have tried to compensate for their vessels' altered handling and roll by, for example, grafting on ballast tanks and wing-like paravanes - colourfully nicknamed "batwings" and "flopper stoppers." Some boats now feature bridges full of high-tech navigation and sonar gear to rival naval destroyers, and price tags that exceed $2,000,000 dollars.

Understanding the safety limits

The new NRC tool will help users better understand the safety limits of unusual new designs. "Some of these designs are really complicated, and complications add to the risk element," says Dr. Akinturk.

Safe design is complicated by the fact that fishers who, not so long ago, plied much simpler boats in sight of shore may now sail more than 300 kilometres out to sea in unprotected and unfamiliar conditions. Also, in response to the challenge of earning a living in a single species fishery, boat owners have taken on multiple licenses and retrofitted multiple fishing gear types without checking with naval architects. No one wants to die, but safety implications aren't well understood.

NRC-IOT's Director of Facilities, Carl Harris, explains that while a lot of data exists on safe designs for older types of boats, Canada's small fishing vessels are evolving so quickly that useful information cannot accumulate.

"These are not conventional boats. They're very, very complex, with a lot of equipment," says Harris. "What these vessels are being asked to do has changed so much, and there is no body of knowledge about how to do that safely. Essentially, we're trying to develop a set of design guidelines for small boats. It's not a black and white tool, but it tries to simplify a very complex problem."

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