Campaign to save N.L. marine rescue centre ramps up after deadly weekend

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – When the call came in Saturday that three fishermen were stranded on a rock ledge in Labrador, their small boat swallowed by rough seas, Merv Wiseman says he didn’t waste time looking at nautical charts.

The maritime search and rescue co-ordinator knew exactly where they were.

“I’ve been in Cape Harrison on the Labrador coast – a very remote area,” he said Monday as a campaign ramped up to save the marine rescue sub-centre in St. John’s, N.L., where Wiseman has worked since 1978.

“I didn’t even have to pull a chart. I knew the situation that was involved there, the kinds of terrain, the sea conditions and so on.

“You just simply don’t have time to lose.”

The three men were plucked from the cliff face in a helicopter rescue about five hours after they called for help.

Wiseman said two of 13 calls since Thursday ended in death for a man who went missing from a Dutch cargo vessel off Newfoundland’s southeast coast, and a fisherman whose small boat capsized near Harbour Grace, N.L.

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Union leaders gathered Monday with local and provincial politicians to announce a rally Saturday in St. John’s to protest Ottawa’s plan to close the rescue centre. They say local knowledge is vital in the complex handling of about 500 search and rescue incidents a year, one-third of which are distress calls.

“On average, 600 lives are saved and 18 lives are lost” in the region each year, says the Canadian Coast Guard website.

Federal Fisheries officials say communications technology means rescue co-ordination services in St. John’s and Quebec can be shifted to Halifax and Trenton, Ont.

Wiseman told reporters Monday that plans are on track to close the St. John’s centre next June, costing up to 12 jobs including his own.

NDP MP Jack Harris, representing St. John’s East, has called it a “negligent” move that will risk lives as Ottawa shaves $56 million from its fisheries budget.

Fisheries Minister Clyde Jackman pleaded his case with his federal counterpart, Keith Ashfield, earlier this month. But the federal Conservative government has said closing what it has referred to as a “call centre” won’t jeopardize safety.

Jackman will attend Saturday’s rally, a spokeswoman said.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale said in a statement Monday that she will continue to push Ottawa to reverse course.

“We have voiced our extreme concern with this decision and efforts are ongoing in our communication with the Prime Minister’s Office on this.”

Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, stressed Monday that lives are at stake.

“There are families who walk the halls of the house at night because they have loved ones at sea trying to make a living from a very hostile environment,” he said.

“The Titanic didn’t go down on the other side of the Atlantic. It didn’t go down off Florida. It went down off the northeast coast of Newfoundland because it’s a very, very hostile environment.

“We need the best facilities we can get to try and deal with distress calls when they arise.”

Critics say the timing is especially mind-boggling after the deadly crash of an offshore helicopter two years ago put search and rescue services under intense scrutiny.

Cougar Flight 491 crashed on March 12, 2009, off Newfoundland, killing 17 people. A public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety recommended faster emergency response, independent safety oversight and several other improvements.

St. John’s city councillor Danny Breen lost his brother, Peter, in the tragedy.

The federal government’s first reply to the helicopter safety inquiry recommendations is “a cut in service,” he told reporters Monday.

“So I believe that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador need to stand up and have this decision reversed. We need to send a strong and clear message that we deserve better than this.”

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