Local sportfishing charter operators are banding together to ensure safety and compliance to the stay-at-home rule during the COVID-19 pandemic, by voluntarily not accepting out of town tourists and shutting down operations until the health crisis clears up, despite how detrimental it will be to their livelihoods.
“I want to take a moment to give a big shout out and thank you to our local sportfishing operators. They have been talking amongst themselves and most have voluntarily decided to close operations in order to not attract people from outside the community. That is no easy decision to make, and I believe we all thank them for that,” Lee Brain, Prince Rupert mayor said in a social media post on April 1.
David Eng owns and operates four boats each fishing season for tourists and charters, and said he fully supports trying to stop any influx of non-residents to the area during the coronavirus pandemic. Eng said there are at least 50 boats in the local area that offer charters, and he has personally spoken to at least 15 owners who are not going to operate under the current conditions.
“I would be appalled and embarrassed for the charter community in Prince Rupert if anyone was running charters and promoting out-of-town fishers coming at this time, ” Eng, owner-operator of Sunset Charters in Prince Rupert, said.
“We are in a delicate position being a gateway to the villages and we need to stop the flooding of incoming people from out of the area,” Eng said.
Eng believes an outright ban on sportfishing would be damaging to local residents.
“Many rely on the local oceans as a food source. Keeping that open will be a relief to the commercial food supply,” Eng said, “Fishing is a positive experience for families and it keeps good mental well-being.”
Colin Flaten, owner of Kaien Sport Fishing Charters started guiding more than 20 years ago. He is already receiving inquiries from out-of-province fishermen as most of his clients are from out of the area, but they are not committed to booking tours as they are unsure of what the situation with COVID-19 will bring. Flaten said it is still early in the season, which usually starts in May and runs to September.
“It’s a tough one. How do you ban someone from coming here? If the government locks down the whole province, then everyone is in the same ball park,” Flaten said, “If people can move around the province then why would we target one specific group from coming here, like sport fishermen.”
The recent concerns about out-of-province visitors may be an isolated situation and the politicians may have had a knee-jerk reaction as many people are still coming and going, like on BC Ferries, through the coal port, and on container ships, Flaten said.
“I’m not against people coming here, but it’s all or none. Don’t isolate one group. Our community relies heavily on tourism,” Flaten said. “Everyone will experience pain. We will have to accept that. It will build up anxiety to target one group.”
Flaten said he believes that local charter owners and operators will all act prudently to support everyone’s safety during the health crisis, but that he wants to see balance.
As of April 6, new measures with mandatory requirements to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission on commercial passenger vessels and ferries were announced by Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport.
The prohibition of all commercial marine vessels with a capacity of more than 12 passengers engaging in non-essential activities, such as tourism or recreation will carry forward until at least June 30, Transport Canada said in an April 5 press release.
Thunder Tours owner Doug Emery who has operated the locally-owned charter company for 15 years said he offers four or five-day excursions, where most operators offer day tours. He said he agrees with Transport Canada setting the passenger limits on vessels.
“The smart thing to do is not operate. You can’t possibly go out with four or five people in a 25-foot boat and expect to keep safe social distancing,” Emery said referring to smaller day tours.
“Until they change social distancing, we unequivocally can not take tours, ” Emery said. “This is going to be really tough on everyone. We lose a year of business income without operating during the May to Sept. season. It looks like a complete wash for me, but hopefully it will turn around.”
Emery’s financial concern was echoed by Eng.
“COVID-19 is financially devastating with substantial effects,” Eng said, “But a positive step is to control the out-of-town visitors.”
K-J Millar | Journalist
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