Issue statement: March 1, 2022

Key Points

  • The design of small fishing vessels in Canada falls under a regulatory framework that is mandated by both the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Transport Canada.
  • Conflicting regulations have resulted in the evolution of vessel proportions that consume as much as five times the fuel required for vessels of normal proportions, resulting in the same increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would result from a design that did not have to overcome the regulatory conflict.
  • The regulatory framework has achieved neither DFO’s intended outcome of limiting the catch capacity nor Transport Canada’s intended outcome of ensuring vessel safety.
  • The federal government could incorporate climate adaptation and mitigation strategies within fishing vessel regulatory frameworks to support its Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 initiative with an added positive impact of improved safety of fishers.
  • Any new regulatory framework must recognize the authority of provincial and territorial regulatory associations and must also recognize that work requiring unbiased and transparent naval architectural expertise should be conducted by a professional engineer in Canada. 


Canada has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The federal government’s strategy is a multi-faceted approach that commits all sectors of the Canadian economy to take climate change seriously and to do their part to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions dramatically in less than thirty years. One sector of the economy that can make a dramatic contribution to GHG reductions is the small fishing vessel fleet. A small fishing vessel is defined by Transport Canada as a vessel less than 150 gross tons and less than 24.4 meters in overall length. Consumption of hydrocarbon fuel is, by far, the single largest non-labour cost of the small fishing vessel fleet. There is a real opportunity to reduce this fuel consumption and the associated greenhouse gas emissions from its current level by as much as 50 to 80 per cent, while continuing to use internal combustion engines and even by 100 per cent in some cases by adapting existing technologies from other marine sectors.

It is solely within the control of the federal government to make this opportunity a reality. The current regulatory framework that governs the design of small fishing vessels in Canada has evolved over time to result in vessels designed not to reduce fuel consumption—but rather to circumvent regulations aimed at reducing catch capacity. Currently, and in the simplest terms, a design must: meet a simple length restriction imposed by DFO aimed at reducing the catch capacity of the vessel; and, at the same time, meet the minimum static stability requirements of Transport Canada’s Small Fishing Vessel Regulations. To circumvent DFO’s length restriction, vessels have become much wider and deeper. Static stability, though, is a function of vessel width, so by increasing vessel width, the static stability requirement is easily reached. However, this regulatory framework has resulted in vessels of such extreme proportions, moving over time from length-to-beam ratios[1] of over 4.0 down to 2.0 or lower. Fuel consumption and, as a result, greenhouse gas emissions of such disproportioned vessels is as much as three times higher than vessels that have more reasonable length-to-beam ratios[2]. As importantly, though, from a safety perspective, such vessels are too stable. While Transport Canada regulations specify the minimum stability, they place no restriction on maximum stability. Yet an excessively stable vessel has motions so extreme that crew members must tie themselves to the vessel to avoid being thrown around. This has resulted in several motion reduction strategies being employed for which there is no regulatory framework and has resulted in repeated loss of lives, capsized vessels, and environmental damage from spilled fuel. One notorious example was that of the Ryan’s Commander, which was designed by an unlicensed practitioner, built in 2004 and capsized and sank later that same year. The loss of the vessel was a case study in the contradiction between regulations imposed by DFO and those imposed by Transport Canada as described by the report of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada[3].

The practice of engineering in Canada, including naval architecture, is regulated by provincial and territorial associations of professional engineers, as mandated by provincial and territorial laws and regulations. However, in many cases the federal government is exempt from those laws. In this case, Transport Canada is accepting work submitted by non-licensed individuals who are undertaking engineering work without following the requirements and standards set by the provincial and territorial jurisdictions. While it is not the mandate of Transport Canada to govern who practices naval architecture in Canada, it is responsible for reviewing work submitted by naval architects who design the vessels and produce the required stability books.  By accepting the work of unlicensed practitioners, it is creating an environment of risk to the public whereby vessel operators believe if the work is accepted by Transport Canada, it must be correct.  However, while Transport Canada reviews the work to ensure the analysis meets the requirements of the regulations, it takes no responsibility to ensure the analysis and the data on which the analysis is based, are correct. Professional engineers are mandated, by terms of their licence, to ensure that the welfare of the public and the environment are paramount requirements of their work. Such licensure requires professional engineers to assume responsibility for the safety of their work, whereas no such accountability applies to non-licensed practitioners. Some professional engineers have taken the only step open to them and have exited the industry[4].

Next steps

To facilitate a significant reduction in GHG emissions by the Canadian Small Fishing Vessel Fleet and to improve the safety of those involved in this industry, the Government of Canada should undertake all steps required to create a new regulatory framework with respect to the design of small fishing vessels in Canada. This new framework must be developed in a manner that ensures that:

  • Fishing vessel emissions are reduced from the extreme levels of the current fleet to a target in line with Canada’s net zero goal.
  • The safety of fishers is a paramount concern.
  • Vessel fishing capacity limits are imposed in a manner that is effective in resource management, such as simply imposing either individual enterprise allocations or maximum trip catch limits for all fisheries, rather than the ineffective limit of length overall.[5]
  • Vessel design is performed under the supervision of a licensed professional engineer

In developing this new regulatory framework, the federal government should:

  • Undertake a multi-departmental review of the current regulatory framework to evaluate how the current framework can be modified to align with Canada’s net-zero goal.
  • Revise those regulations that have resulted in the development of fishing vessel designs that have sub-optimal emission profiles and safety performance.
  • Put in place requirements that only qualified personnel, registered with provincial or territorial engineering regulators, are responsible for the design and/or modification of vessels, ensuring federal regulations are in line with provincial or territorial regulatory goals to protect public safety.
  • Encourage the adaptation of vessel designs that are in alignment with current programs of relevant federal departments, such as DFO’s strategy to help Canada meet its climate change targets and Transport Canada’s Sustainable Development Strategy from 2020-2023 to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the marine sector. Weaving climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies within fishing vessel regulatory amendments will support the federal government’s overarching Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 initiative.

Engineers Canada will:

  • Advocate for climate adaptation and mitigation strategies within fishing vessel regulatory frameworks to support the federal government’s Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 initiative, the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s climate change target strategy, and Transport Canada’s Sustainable Development Strategy.
  • Work to create a National Position Statement regarding the need for the involvement of professional engineers within Canada’s federal regulations of fishing vessel design.
  • Continue to advocate for federal departments to recognize the authority of provincial and territorial engineering regulators, specifically within regulatory fishing vessel frameworks, and to ensure that where engineering work is being performed in Canada, that work must be done by an engineer licensed in the province or territory where the work is being completed.

[1] The length to beam ratio of a vessel is the length of the design waterline (LWL) divided by the maximum width (beam) of the vessel at the waterline (BWL­).

[2] The proportions of a vessel affect the performance characteristics of the hull form.  A vessel hull shape must balance sea kindliness with stability, maneuverability with directional stability and hull volume with fuel consumption.  A vessel with a very low L/B ratio will be excessively stable while being directionally unstable, and difficult to push through the water.  By comparison, consider a racing shell propelled by oars. Such a hull is very narrow (high L/B) with limited stability, but very easy to propel through the water with very low power.

[3] The contribution of the regulatory contradiction between DFO length restrictions and Transport Canada’s stability requirements was highlighted by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada in its Marine Investigation Report M04N0086 “Capsizing and Loss of Life: Small Fishing Vessel Ryan’s Commander – 5 Nautical Miles East of Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland and Labrador, 19 September 2004”.

[4] Having started a licensed naval architecture firm, Marineering Limited, in 1993, Dr. Dan Walker, a co-author of this document, decided to withdraw from the fishing industry after working on the development of an anti-roll tank with Dr. Don Bass at Memorial University, specifically because unlicensed naval architects were offering and providing alternative services that did not include comprehensive analysis to ensure vessel safety. Dr. Walker knows several other professional engineers who made the same decision.

[5] Similar steps were taken by the Norwegian government in the 1990s where length-limiting regulations resulted in non-optimal vessel proportions similar to the current situation in Canada. As a result of modification of the regulations, vessel proportions returned to more optimal values.