Fisheries Patrol
Dec 15, 2007

Feeling a bit like a tourist, I carry my bags “across the brow” of the Canadian navy frigate HMCS St. John’s. The little cabin that I will share with two other officers for the week-long mission can best be described as “a little hole in the wall.” The bunks are barely as long as I am tall, with less than three feet of space in between, but the black ball cap, embroidered with the name HMCS St. John’s, catches my attention. Lieutenant (Navy) Neville Lockyer informs me that the middle bunk, and the cap, are indeed for me.

NAFOs measure net spaces for regulation compliance.

I am not embarking on a combat mission, it is a Fisheries Patrol. Two North Atlantic Fisheries Officers (NAFO) have been on board for a couple weeks now, patrolling the north Atlantic, checking fishing permits and regulations in international waters.

The navy works with other federal departments – the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in this case – to provide effective surveillance and a meaningful presence (key indicators of sovereignty at sea). Only the navy has the ability to control maritime events in our waters and is often called upon to support these fisheries patrols as a key component of our sovereignty at sea. Such ventures are welcome as they provide opportunities to perform necessary training and drills that can seldom be done while on active duty.

The ship’s crew is constantly busy with exercises. One such drill involves firing of the weapons system. Admittedly, I could understand very few of the announcements over “the pipes,” but when the 57mm gun on the foc’sle shook the ship after lunch, I quickly figured it out. Standing on the bridge, beside an assortment of Navy officers and Officer Cadets from the Royal Military College, I had a clear view of shell casings flying out the back of the gun.

The nets come up.

One of the Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB) was readied for boarding a shrimp­ing vessel, as part of the Fisheries Patrol.  Once we boarded the fishing vessel, the NAFOs met with the captain to determine when the nets would be pulled back in. The two men then completed masses of forms with the ease of many years of experience. A half hour and a couple of pens later, the paperwork was done but we still had to wait for the nets. The captain showed us to the hold so the officers could examine the existing catch of shrimp.

One of the requirements that the Fisheries Officers are looking for is an accurate storage plan, which this ship didn’t have. One of the NAFOs filled out more paperwork while the other showed the ­captain and several officers how to draw one out for future reference. We then settled in for a long wait.

Suddenly, additional crewmen began appearing on deck and it was obvious that the nets were being pulled back soon. I ventured on deck and watched as the cranks started. When the net was finally all on board I could only hope that the Fisheries Officers weren’t planning on measuring every hole or we’d be there for a couple days. Thankfully, they took a dozen or so measurements for each layer of the netting and broke out the calculator.

RHIB is lowered.

They checked and double checked the numbers and radioed St. John’s to pick us up. As we climbed down through the ship, we thanked everyone for their cooperation and climbed back down the ladder into the RHIB. The adventure wasn’t quite over yet as one of the portholes suddenly started spewing water into the RHIB. It was a challenge getting the last NAFO into the boat while avoiding the spout of water, but the sailor steering the RHIB was up to it.

Some days were so foggy that we couldn’t see the RHIB after it got more than a couple meters from the frigate, but they always found their target and made it back without incident. The whole operation was done to perfection, no matter what the weather.

The most common problem was when a fisherman would cut his lines so he wouldn’t be caught with an illegal net. There was nothing much the officers could do in a case like that.

Home Sweet Home...

On board St. John’s everyone was kept busy training except the Air Detachment officers; for the most part, there was too much fog for the helicopters to fly. The sky did clear one day and I was able to watch instructions on how to perform helicopter in flight refueling (HIFR).

I disembarked the next day with a whole new respect for the Canadian Navy, and swearing to myself that I would never again stuff my 6'4" frame into one of those bunks... if I have the choice.

Karch MacLean is a journalism student based in Ottawa.
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