Marine fuel dock in harbour hit hard by pandemic

Victoria Marine Fuels — which keeps the motors running for whale watchers, salmon charters, tug boats and almost every other vessel in and around Victoria Harbour — is riding out the storm after restrictions surrounding the pandemic drastically slashed sales of gasoline and diesel.

Doug Foster, assistant manager, said fuel sales have declined 75% compared with last year, a huge hit to a company that is an essential service to the South Island boating community.

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“We just have to suck it up and hope things improve,” Foster said. “We have to be here. Lots of people depend on us.”

Foster said the fuel dock at Fisherman’s Wharf has switched to its winter schedule of reduced hours and staff, but has no plans to shutter operations.

Even before the pandemic, the company was hit hard by a decision in January by V2V Vacations to quit its daily ferry runs between Victoria and Vancouver harbours.

But the closing of the U.S. border and the scuttling of the cruise ship season that was forecast to bring nearly 800,000 passengers caused a massive ripple effect. It stopped the regular flow of American sailors who fuel their boats here to cruise the B.C. coast, as well as the hundreds of thousands of tourists who go whale-watching, use harbour ferries and book fishing charters.

“The whale watchers were working at half-capacity, so that hurts us. Nobody’s fishing that much because of the salmon restrictions,” Foster said.

The Harbour Ferry Company, which run 16 routes around the harbour, closed operations last Sunday after reporting a 75% decline in passengers and limited use of its boats over the summer. That was another gut-punch for the fuel dock, Foster said.

Tug boats and barge companies have been busy and local sailors who live aboard and rely on diesel for their heat will help to keep the fuel dock afloat, said Foster.

Victoria Harbour is home to hundreds of docks and slips for pleasure craft, and dozens of businesses that support construction and ship repair, and is a major supply-chain corridor. Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to several commercial fishing vessels.

Oak Bay Marina and Van Isle Marina also sell fuel, but Foster said “it’s a long way to go to top up” if you’re based out of Victoria Harbour.

He said the Fisherman’s Wharf fuel dock sells food, tackle, bait and ice, and those sales were also pinched hard. “I usually stock about $1,500 wholesale worth of fishing tackle, but sold nothing this year. I usually sell three big freezers of ice. This year, just one.”

Efforts to rebuild the dock that support the fuel depot were put on hold as the pandemic hit.

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority postponed major capital projects and said it was only doing repairs that meet safety requirements on the properties it manages. Chief executive Ian Robertson said the harbour authority was in talks with a company for a build-lease agreement on the fuel dock. That company pulled out of the discussion after the pandemic took hold.

Robertson said the project still has priority. “We are committed to ensuring there is a viable gas service in the harbour,” he said. “It’s extremely important to have this service for private and commercial operators. I agree that it’s an essential service.”

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority reported in 2018 that four million litres of fuel were dispensed from the dock.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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