ST. JOHN’S, NL — About 13.5 months ago, Jeanette Russell had the worst day of her life.
His son, Marc Freeman Russell, and his friend, Joey Jenkins, failed to return to Mary’s Harbour, Labrador, after going out to haul in their cod nets at the end of the fishing season.
The two missing men and their nine-metre fishing boat, the Island Lady, were never found.
On Wednesday, Nov. 2, in St. John’s, Jeanette Russell delivered a powerful address at a symposium hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Fish Harvesting Safety Association detailing those terrible days of search and rescue efforts for her son and his teammate, and the struggles the family had to go through trying to keep search and rescue personnel on the scene longer.
She also decried the lack of search and rescue resources in Labrador, the need for mandatory locator beacons in the inshore fishery, and the need to identify and fill gaps in the overall search and rescue system.
“I am here today outraged by the lack of essential search and rescue resources in Labrador. It has been over 10 years since the Burton Winters tragedy when this issue was first illustrated, and this injustice has still not been corrected,” Russell said. “How many lives must be lost in Labrador before the federal government fixes the problem?”
“What happened to Marc and Joey could happen to any fisherman in Newfoundland and Labrador. Labrador fishers are at even greater risk of perilous outcomes due to the obscene lack of search and rescue resources in Labrador.
Marc Russell and Joey Jenkins went out to retrieve their cod nets on Friday September 17, 2021 and did not return ashore that evening.
A search and rescue effort was launched, first by local fishermen, then by resources brought in by the Canadian Coast Guard and aircraft overseen by the Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) in Halifax.
The search was somewhat inhibited the following day due to poor weather conditions.
Two days later, on September 19, Jeanette Russell’s husband, Dwight, and other local fishermen asked the JRCC to expand the search area. The result was the location of debris, including two fishing tubs and a can of gasoline. At 9 p.m. that evening, the JRCC announced that the search and rescue effort was complete and the case was turned over to the RCMP on a recovery mission.
Jeanette Russell said the families learned of the decision from the media.
“There’s no way to describe the feeling of abandonment we felt,” she said. “As in the Burton Winters tragedy, I personally felt like Labrador had been abandoned by the federal search and rescue program.”
Russell’s family then took to social media to press for an additional 24 hours of search and rescue efforts as time was lost on Saturday due to weather conditions. They also called MPs from Newfoundland and Labrador, the office of the Minister of National Defense and the office of the Prime Minister.
Despite verbal assurances about overtime, this did not happen.
However, two military aircraft and a provincial aircraft joined what had become a recovery mission, while local ships continued to search.
On September 28, 2021, a decision was made by the RCMP to end the search for Marc and Joey. Search teams had covered a total of 9,460 square nautical miles over a 10-day period from the air and water, and had searched below the ocean surface.
Russell noted that agencies involved at various times included the JRCC, Canadian Armed Forces, Provincial Air Services, Canadian Air Search and Rescue Association, Canadian Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, Kraken Robotics, Deer Lake Ground Search and Rescue and the RCMP Underwater Recovery Team.
This was in addition to a “plethora of local fishing and pleasure boats and private planes”.
“Nothing in life can prepare a parent to experience the death of a child, but there is an added hurt when your child dies at sea and will never come home for burial,” he said. she declared. “We were faced with the painful recognition that our family would never come to an end to this tragedy.”
Russell said there were huge gaps and problems in the search and rescue system his family experienced during the tragedy.
She said there was a lot to be done to get all the different agencies involved working more effectively as a whole.
“This calls for a broader conversation that needs to take place, which is why I support a call for a federal commission of inquiry into fishing vessel safety because they can then look at everyone’s role in this system and then find out where are the shortcomings, where are the problems. It will create a platform to address these issues,” she said.
“All the shortcomings were glaringly apparent to us during our experience. We realized every step of the way that it felt like we were pulling teeth to get people to do things, bring things in, or take assets out too soon.
“All the shortcomings were glaringly apparent to us during our experience.”
Russell said the perilous nature of the fishing industry must be supported by a “robust and adequately resourced search and rescue service which I am sorry to report is conspicuously absent in Labrador”.
“My personal tragedy describes the inherent risk in the fishing industry, as well as the shortcomings in search and rescue resources in Labrador,” she said.
“Since Marc’s disappearance, I have made it my mission to fight for change in search and rescue resources in Labrador. For me, it’s the only way to find meaning in the aftermath of his death. Marc and Joey’s lives mattered. Unless search and rescue changes are initiated for Labrador, their deaths will not have mattered. More lives will continue to be at risk and an opportunity to create a safer fishing industry for all fishers in Newfoundland and Labrador will have been lost.