Marine safety in a changing ocean: Climate adaptation for OHS

By Rylan J. Command, OFI Module I

Greenhouse gas emissions are unequivocally driving climate change, contributing to ocean warming, sea-ice loss, and increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (IPCC, 2021). The consequences of these changes are often discussed in terms of biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, human displacement, and lost livelihoods. Marine safety is discussed far less often but underpins many of the challenges resulting from climate change. Extreme weather events are becoming more common, threatening the safety of fishers and other mariners. The consequences of these changes in Newfoundland and Labrador were discussed at a recent Harris Center event, “The Future of Our Fisheries & Oceans in the Face of Climate Change”. As oceans warm and sea ice recedes, fishing grounds and habits may change; harvesters accustomed to fishing in particular locations and seasons may be required to pursue new fisheries or follow species to new locations. Such shifts may lead to increased OHS incidents, as harvesters contend with new gear, ocean environments, and weather conditions.

“A potential concern is that climate change can render weather predictions less reliable. Forecasts (including marine forecasts) are constrained by comparisons between past predictions and actual outcomes; these constraints can be weakened as climate change introduces new conditions, shifts seasonal expectations, or shifts the frequency and intensity of extreme events.”
Dr. Joel Finnis, OFI Module I-4

Marine fishing is a dangerous profession, especially in the Northwest Atlantic where harvesters may be exposed to high winds, poor visibility, and sea ice (Reid & Finnis, 2019). Recent research suggests that past weather conditions may no longer be reliable for assessing future conditions (Daraio et al., 2019), and marine safety will be increasingly affected as mariners contend with new challenges. Dr. Joel Finnis, a researcher with the Ocean Frontiers Institute Module I-4, examines relationships between harvesters, meteorologists, risk communication, and fishing occupational health and safety (OHS). While weather predictions are an important way to mitigate some of the risk (Finnis et al., 2019), weather alone is rarely the sole cause of safety incidents. Weather conditions make regular activities such as gear and rope management, moving around on deck, and navigation more dangerous. Bringing together harvesters, forecasters, and policymakers to address the needs of people working on the water is one possible way to improve safety outcomes for small-scale harvesters (Finnis et al., 2019). Understanding the interactions between climate variability, weather, fisheries management, and governance influencing workplace risk is critical to adapting to marine safety challenges.

“While climate change is not directly related to our research into the technical performance and usability of personal locator beacons, it is possible that the *effects* of climate change will result in an increased incidence of maritime emergencies. We anticipate that our research will result in improvements to the design and regulation of personal locator beacons which will, in turn, help ensure the safety of fish harvesters who use them during emergencies.”
Dr. Rob Brown, OFI Module I-4

Test mannequin during sea trials, shown wearing immersion suit and floatation device with PLBs and instrumentation package on chest. Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Brown.

Given uncertainties in weather forecasts, and the myriad interactions among governance and climate impacts, the number of maritime emergencies is expected to increase due to climate change (Clark et al., 2016). In the Canadian Arctic, the number of people requiring Search and Rescue (SAR) assistance has been increasing (Clark et al., 2016), highlighting persistent gaps in emergency response and healthcare available to remote communities in Canada (Clark & Ford, 2017). With sea-ice loss projected to accelerate development of transportation corridors and other infrastructure in Arctic waters (Melia et al., 2016), improving the availability of adequate SAR and emergency response capacity are crucial to ensure positive safety outcomes for vulnerable coastal communities. Research by Dr. Robert Brown, a researcher with OFI-Module I-4, aims to address the knowledge gap related to the performance of safety equipment in marine emergencies. His research into the technical performance and usability of emergency signalling equipment, in particular personal locator beacons, aims to ensure safety of harvesters in emergency situations.

View from the test mannequin during sea trials showing the research vessel in rough sea conditions. PLB antennae visible in the bottom of each frame. Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Brown.

OFI-Module I contributes to several areas of research in marine safety include improving the design and implementation of personal locator beacons, improving marine forecasting, improving safety standards, and understanding the interactions among weather and marine emergencies like capsizing. Improving marine safety is important for climate change adaptation, which is why we will be talking about “Getting ADAPTATION Right” at 4WSFC North America next June.


Clark, D. G., & Ford, J. D. (2017). Emergency response in a rapidly changing Arctic. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 189(4), E135–E136. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.161085

Clark, D. G., Ford, J. D., Berrang-Ford, L., Pearce, T., Kowal, S., & Gough, W. A. (2016). The role of environmental factors in search and rescue incidents in Nunavut, Canada. Public Health, 137, 44–49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2016.06.003

Daraio, J. A., Khan, A. A., & Finnis, J. (2019). Incorporating climate change considerations into flood mapping and infrastructure design in Newfoundland and Labrador. Growing with Youth – Croître Avec Les Jeunes, 9. https://www.csce.ca/elf/apps/CONFERENCEVIEWER/conferences/2019/pdfs/PaperPDFversion_29_0513100125.pdf

Finnis, J., Shewmake, J. W., Neis, B., & Telford, D. (2019). Marine forecasting and fishing safety: Improving the fit between forecasts and harvester needs. Journal of Agromedicine, 24(4), 324–332. https://doi.org/10.1080/1059924x.2019.1639576

Melia, N., Haines, K., & Hawkins, E. (2016). Sea ice decline and 21st century trans-Arctic shipping routes: Trans-Arctic shipping in the 21st Century. Geophysical Research Letters, 43(18), 9720–9728. https://doi.org/10.1002/2016GL069315

Reid, H., & Finnis, J. (2019). Summarizing metocean operating conditions as a climatology of marine hazards. Theoretical and Applied Climatology, 135(3–4), 1387–1397. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00704-018-2444-2


Rylan J. Command is a M.Sc. student in the 4D Oceans Lab at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, and a Research Assistant with the Ocean Frontier Institute Module I. His thesis research focuses on temporal trends in the abundance, behaviour, biodiversity, and distribution of seafloor megafauna in response to climate anomalies. He is particularly interested in how climate change is affecting fisheries and food systems, the ways in which humans use and distribute marine resources globally, and the policies, principles, and decision-making processes underpinning food systems.