Ron Neitsch, owner of 2 Reel Fishing Adventures in Sooke, is uncertain of the future for charter fishermen. Many charter fishing businesses were struggling before the outbreak of COVID-19 due to tighter restrictions from the DFO, but the pandemic has shut down business completely. (Photo contributed by Ron Neitsch)

COVID-19 outbreak creates ‘dire situation’ for Sooke charter fishermen

Tightened restrictions from DFO already had sport fishermen struggling to earn a living

Like many businesses in Sooke, opportunities for fishermen to earn a living have virtually capsized amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I would tell you how things are going for me right now but you don’t print explicit words in your paper,” said Ron Neitsch, owner of 2 Reel Fishing Charters with a sigh.

Neitsch told the VI Free Daily his business is shut down right now, and so is every other fishing charter he is aware of in the area.

“The whole thing is pretty much voluntary, there’s no enforcement but we can’t adhere to social distancing, that wouldn’t work on the boat, so it’s too risky,” explained Neitsch. “Nothing can help the charter guys now. We are all in the same boat as far as the tourism industry goes, because no one is spending tourist dollars.”

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Neitsch said he would normally depend on small side jobs in slow times before the virus, but those options are not available because most of those companies are also not working.

“Fishing was my sole income, so for me, I’ll be planning on applying for every government assistance available. Even side jobs right now extremely hard to get,” said Neitsch.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had my boats parked in my yard and not known when they will go back out on the water.”

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, Neitsch said charter fishermen were struggling, but the virus has been “icing on the cake.”

Stricter rules around fishing from the federal government created a whole other set of challenges.

As of April 1, commercial and recreational fisheries are not allowed to retain any chinook salmon in the Sooke to Port Renfrew area until July 31. These restrictions were implemented last year, which local sport fishers and charter operators said would be devastating for their industry.

The decision by Fisheries and Oceans Canada was made as a result of conservation concerns for the Fraser River chinook salmon. Restrictions have been getting tighter and tighter last few years, but this is something Neitsch said he has never seen before.

“It’s truly a dire situation for us,” said Neitsch. “We have been hit so incredibly hard with restrictions, and now with COVID-19 happening, you would think the DFO would allow us to catch at least one. We can’t even go out and catch a fish for our family to supplement these difficult times.”

He added that sport fisherman are the people who care the most about salmon, and do their part to keep populations up. “We also take such a small percentage of fish, and the economic value is so high. I hope the DFO will come to see that.”

Neitsch hopes that the COVID-19 situation will improve by July or August, so he can at least go back out on the water for the last bit of summer. He also hopes that the DFO will eventually see the benefits to tourism that sport fishing brings, and that restrictions will start to go in their favour.

“But how long can people hold out? Change isn’t always a bad thing, I’m sure I’ll find something else to do for now … or maybe a new career somewhere down the road,” said Neitsch. “I feel like a member of the working poor.”

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Ron Neitsch, owner of 2 Reel Fishing Adventures in Sooke, is uncertain of the future for charter fishermen. Many charter fishing businesses were struggling before the outbreak of COVID-19 due to tighter restrictions from the DFO, but the pandemic has shut down business completely. (Photo contributed by Ron Neitsch)

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