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Dire straits for sport-fishing, whale-watching

Sports-fishing guides would typically be on the waters off Port Renfrew at this time of year to take out clients keen to catch halibut and salmon.
whale watching
A whale watching boat travels past Clover Point in October 2017.

Sports-fishing guides would typically be on the waters off Port Renfrew at this time of year to take out clients keen to catch halibut and salmon.

But fishing guides are at home, hotels are closed and vessels are docked due to COVID-19 restrictions, and it’s not known when these seasonal business will be able to start up again.

The sport-fishing sector and whale-watching companies are among businesses watching customers disappear and wondering what the future holds.

Along with virus-related restrictions, measures aimed at helping to save the endangered southern resident killer whales have been beefed up this year.

Part of Juan de Fuca Strait and the Southern Gulf Islands will be closed for both commercial and recreational fisheries, with specific dates to be announced next month, federal officials said.

Chinook salmon are expected to be subject to fishing restrictions again this year because they are the favoured food for the endangered whales.

Sanctuary zones in locations around Vancouver Island will come into effect in June, and will last an additional month compared with last year, ending on Nov. 30.

Also starting June 1, vessels must stay at least 400 metres from whales, a rule that will now be in effect year-round and cover a larger territory, running from Campbell River to just north of Ucluelet. Fisheries and Oceans Canada is already anticipating a year of poor salmon returns, similar to 2019 — grim news for the commercial fishing fleet.

“When you look at the recreational fishing industry and those operators that we0re hit hard last year, it’s going to be even more difficult now this year,” said Karl Ablack, vice-president of Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce.

The combination of restrictions will likely knock out the first half of this year’s season, said Ablack, noting all coastal communities dependent on sports fishing for their economies are in the same situation.

Ablack doesn’t expect to see an opening for chinook until at least mid to late July.

Fishing restrictions for Fraser River-bound chinook salmon are too strict, he said. Orcas typically feed at deeper water levels, but restrictions are being applied to shallow waters around Vancouver Island.

Ablack is hoping for a meeting with the federal fisheries minister to discuss the issue.

Owen Bird, executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C., said for those who rely on sport fishing for their livelihoods, such as charter operators, “it’s been impossible” to conduct business.

“We are coming up to the season where the larger resorts and operations begin to ramp up their activities, so they’ve had to either delay opening or delay their preparations for the season to begin.”

Those businesses are hoping for guidelines that allow them to open. “As it stands right now, it’s been very devastating,” Bird said.

Dan Kukat, owner and founder of SpringTide Whale Watching, said that federal and provincial rules currently prohibit whale-watching vessels from taking out passengers. Vessels with more than 12 passengers have been banned from operating by the federal government until the end of June.

Kukat is a member of a local group of tourism-related interests that is drawing up a plan that would likely include provisions to keep people apart on vessels. However, fewer passengers means less revenue, raising the question of economic viability.

SpringTide has three staff on the books right now, far below the normal 40. The sector had been looking forward to a “very strong” tourist season, he said.

Suppliers have been hit, too, because the boat operators would normally be buying supplies such as fuel, motors, and special clothing, he said.

Seasonal businesses are in a particularly tough position because they often draw down savings or rely on credit to get through the winter, Kukat said. But now, without the season starting up, business owners might have to look at renewing mortgages and borrowing from family and friends to try to get through the crisis.

He’s hoping whale-watching vessels will be permitted to return to the water in time to salvage some of the season.

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