RCMP end search for missing crew on Nova Scotia scallop dragger

More than a month after the crew of a scallop dragger from Nova Scotia disappeared on the Bay of Fundy, the RCMP are calling off their search for the five men suspected of going down with the vessel, citing “significant” risk to the lives of divers.

The body of one crew member was found the day the boat was last seen.

The loved ones of missing crew members received a glimmer of hope last weekend when the sunken boat was located on the ocean floor, about two kilometres from Delaps Cove and more than 60 metres below the surface.

The RCMP said at the time that their crews were not equipped to dive to the necessary depths to look inside, but they said they were studying their options.

On Saturday, they announced in a news release that those options had been exhausted.

Too risky for Canadian Armed Forces divers

“The RCMP approached the Canadian Armed Forces to determine whether their divers may be able to assist,” the RCMP news release said.

“Upon conducting a thorough risk analysis, the CAF determined that the risk to the lives of their divers was too significant and unfortunately, were unable to support the request.”

With that, the RCMP said they were putting an end to all search operations, but they will continue to support investigations by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) and the provincial Department of Labour.

The Chief William Saulis is shown in November. (Katherine Bickford)

In a statement, the TSB said it is conducting a Class 3 investigation into the incident. According to its website, this kind of investigation would result in a detailed report, which could include some recommendations. These investigations would usually be completed within 450 days.

“This investigation is ongoing. It is too early to draw conclusions,” the emailed statement said.

“In this particular investigation, we have been able to collect significant information without access to the vessel itself. Should the vessel be recovered at a future date, we would examine the wreckage for additional information.”

The statement said the TSB is not responsible for wreckage recovery or search and rescue missions.

“The TSB investigation team is mindful of the families who want answers rapidly. Throughout the investigation, we will be in direct contact with the next of kin,” it said.

The province’s Department of Labour did not immediately respond to CBC’s request for comment about the status of the investigation.

Family members grapple with end of search

The Chief William Saulis was last seen early on Dec. 15 heading toward shore after a week-long fishing trip. No mayday call was issued by the six-man crew, but an automated emergency beacon sounded at about 5 a.m. in the same area where the boat would eventually be found.

An extensive search of the shoreline and water was mounted that day, which led to the discovery of two empty life-rafts and the body of one crew member — Michael Drake of Fortune, N.L.

Family and friends of the other five crew members — Aaron Cogswell, Leonard Gabriel, Dan Forbes, Eugene Francis and the captain, Charles Roberts — have said they suspect the men were asleep in their bunks when something catastrophic caused the vessel to sink.

A Lands and Forestry helicopter searched the shoreline around Delaps Cove repeatedly throughout December and early January. (Submitted by Nova Scotia RCMP)

Laura Smith, the sister and next of kin of Gabriel, said she’s satisfied that the RCMP have done everything in their ability to find the men, but she thinks some other government entity should continue the search.

She said no expense should be spared, “providing it’s safe enough that we don’t lose any other men doing the search…. I don’t want to lose anybody else’s family member trying to bring mine home.”

Smith said she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life wondering if her brother might eventually wash up on shore.

The RCMP have not been able to confirm that the missing fishermen are inside the vessel, but Lori Phillips — the mother of crew member Cogswell — said she’s confident they are. She feels there must be some way to bring them up.

“They can send divers down to the Titanic to bring up artifacts … realistically I’m having a hard time comprehending it. I think it comes down to the almighty dollar,” Phillips said.

But even if there is a way to recover the men, Phillips said she’s torn about whether it should be done.

“Right now you’ve got five people who are obviously together in their final resting place, all doing what they love doing. We [would be] bringing them up for our own selfish reasons.”

The company that owns the Chief William Saulis, Yarmouth Sea Products, has been raising money for the families, including through a GoFundMe campaign that as of Saturday had amassed more than $73,000. Phillips said there’s been some talk among the families about putting that money toward an independent recovery effort.

“Personally I’m torn, again. I know Aaron is where he would want to be. And the money that could be spent doing that could be put into trust funds for the nephews and nieces that he loved so much and give them a better chance at life so they don’t have to go out and risk their lives out on the ocean,” Phillips said.

Nova Scotia RCMP said they’ll continue to offer support and updates to family of the crew.

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