B.C.’s billion-dollar sport fishing sector hopes local anglers can keep them afloat

Click to play video: 'B.C.’s sport fishing industry pivots during COVID-19 pandemic'
B.C.’s sport fishing industry pivots during COVID-19 pandemic
B.C.'s sport fishing industry pivots during COVID-19 pandemic – May 31, 2020

Normally at this time of year, Jason Assonitis’ charter business would be going full bore, taking sport fishers onto the waters of the Salish Sea to catch early season Chinook salmon.

April to June are some of Bon Chovy Charters’ busiest months. This year, his three boats have sat idle, shut down by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“In the two-month period of the closure, I believe we grossed about $50,” Assonitis told Global News.

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“It’s been pretty hard to run a business, keep employees on the payroll, operate all this equipment, moorage, rent, all that kind of thing. It was worrisome.”

According to the industry, sport fishing is worth about a billion dollars per year to B.C.’s economy and employs about 6,000 people.

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But with about 30 per cent of bookings coming from out of province, it’s one of the province’s many tourism-dependent businesses that has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Owen Bird, executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia, is hopeful that the industry has now turned a corner, with the province’s restart plan underway, and guidelines in place for charters’ safe operation.

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“They’ve been really effectively closed until Phase 2,” he told Global News. “Now we can look at local operations taking place.”

While the borders might still be closed, Bird said more than two-thirds of the industry’s customers are still British Columbian, and he’s hopeful they’ll turn out to take advantage of the less-crowded waters — and B.C. seafood.

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“All of the salmon species, halibut and prawns.”

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Assonitis says his company has taken precautions to ensure clients are safe on the water. His boats are more than three metres (11 feet) wide, and open air.

Masks are available and the equipment will get scrubbed down with sanitizer between excursions.

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He, too, is hopeful B.C. fishers will pick up the slack — especially now that the cruise season, which supplies many of his summer clients — has been scrapped.

“Hopefully there’s locals that want to come out on the water and enjoy what B.C. has to offer,” he said.

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As for whether it will be enough to keep his boats afloat?

“I’ll tell ya’ in September,” said Assonitis.

-With files from Paul Johnson

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