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Senator Fabian Manning, chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, speaks at a news conference Friday morning at the Best Western Plus hotel in St. John’s.
Senator Fabian Manning, chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, speaks at a news conference Friday morning at the Best Western Plus hotel in St. John’s. - Joe Gibbons

Senate search and rescue report recommends mandatory beacons, private-sector involvement

The family of Burton Winters is still waiting for an answer about whether the provincial government will launch an inquiry into the death of their son.

Previously, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons stated the government would wait for the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans to finish its study of maritime search and rescue in the province.

Winters was 14 when he went snowmobiling near Makkovik in Labrador in 2012. His body was found three days after he went missing. Search and rescue helicopters were not called to look for the boy until two days after he was reported missing.

On Thursday, the committee, chaired by Senator Fabian Manning, tabled its report.

On Friday, Parsons said the government needs more time to review the report before making a decision about an inquiry.

“Search and rescue continues to be an issue of provincial and national importance and one we take quite seriously. We are currently reviewing the Report of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans’ review of Maritime Search and Rescue,” Parsons said in a statement.

“Given the federal government’s jurisdiction in search and rescue, much co-ordination is required before we decide how to proceed. As we move forward with this matter, more information will be provided to the public as soon as possible.”

Thomas Williams, lawyer for the Winters family, says the family is relieved to see the Senate report completed, but they were promised an inquiry.

“This matter has been outstanding now nearly seven years. Three years ago, government made a commitment that they would have an inquiry into Burton’s loss,” Williams said.

“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster over the last six years. They’re hoping government will take this, consider it and move forward with the inquiry as they committed to do.”

The report found that search and rescue incidents in this province are twice as high as the national average. Manning pointed to the continued reliance on the commercial fishery and the rough weather of the North Atlantic as reasons the number is so high.

One of the recommendations in the report is for an increased use of private-sector helicopters to assist in search and rescue operations, rather than increasing the resources of the Coast Guard or Canadian Forces in the area.

Manning says a lot of what’s needed is already in place with the private sector.

“The amount of assets that we have are limited. Capital spending, fleet renewal, it takes forever and a day — it’s amazing how long it takes Canada once you decide you’ll have 10 new helicopters,” said Manning.

“We want to reach out to the private sector to look at the fact that we could have state-of-the-art equipment, top-notch professionals, and we could have that in weeks.”

Manning was careful to say private helicopters would complement existing search and rescue operations, not replace them.

Another recommendation would give commercial fishermen two years to purchase emergency beacons for their vessels, which can cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000. Manning says the recommendation does not include any provisions for government compensation for the beacons, noting that the cost is very small when considering the full cost of a fishing vessel.

Merv Wiseman, a retired search and rescue dispatcher and longtime advocate, says beacons on every boat would make a huge difference in the future of search and rescue in the province.

“If I were a fisherman, I’d have a (beacon) I would take to bed with me every night, I would kiss it and hug it — that’s how important it is to me,” Wiseman said.

“It will save lives, there’s no question about that.”

The 22 recommendations now have to be reviewed by the federal government.

Twitter: DavidMaherNL

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