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COVID-19's effects on the outdoors

Pemberton Wildlife Association, fishing guides discuss pandemic's impact

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are even stretching into the local wilderness.

Pemberton Wildlife Association (PWA) president Allen McEwan said that as a result of the pandemic, the group's revenues are down, though it plans to keep up with several planned initiatives.

"The PWA will be proceeding with the Pemberton Bat Inventory Project that was started last year as it is important to gather this data for 2020," McEwan wrote in an email document after consulting with vice-president Greg Reamsbottom and membership coordinator Carmen Stacey. "We will also be proceeding with a nest box program for Wood Ducks."

Other PWA operations such as monitoring the deer counter and maintaining trails is also still possible, while its archery and shooting ranges have remained open.

"The archery and shooting ranges have remained open with the understanding that the high standards we expect from our members regarding safety while using the ranges now also include all the recommended protocols for social distancing and travel," McEwan wrote.

In the bigger picture, though some people have more time to enjoy the wilderness at this time, McEwan said the PWA doesn't have any additional concerns about the potential negative effects, as fishing and hunting are licensed activities with stringent rules with the caveat that BC Parks, the Conservation Officer Service (COS) and Natural Resource Officers are "chronically underfunded and short staffed." As well, the activities' isolated nature makes it inherently likely that participants won't be close enough to transmit the virus.

"Hunting and fishing have always been activities where 'distancing' from others is proper etiquette and the normal practice," he noted.

"Many anglers, hunters, hikers and campers find the peace and solitude of being alone in nature to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of these activities, so I don't think there's any additional concern around distancing unless the number of outdoor users overwhelms the infrastructure. Joffre Lakes would be a prime example of that."

McEwan added that in addition to enforcing proper behaviour in parks, services such as BC Parks, the COS and Natural Resource Officers are fighting an uphill battle against misinformation online. While he didn't have a pandemic-related example, McEwan noted that people keep visiting the Meager Creek Hotspring even though it has been closed for years due to a 2010 landslide. With additional confusion around the pandemic, he imagines it's only gotten worse.

"These ongoing violations put the users at risk (due to the lack of maintenance at the site and the instability of the area), needlessly displaces wildlife and causes strain on what little enforcement staff we have available," he wrote in a follow-up email. "Where are these people getting their information? Clearly not from a government website."

The PWA also has some concerns related to the ongoing pandemic in that illegal dumping may worsen, while risky backcountry activities—always discouraged—are even more ill-advised at this time.

Meanwhile, Sea to Sky fishing guides are wondering how they can safely operate. Although outdoor businesses like fishing and hunting were deemed essential services by the province, it was as food and agricultural service providers, so guiding is not included, according to Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development public affairs officer Dawn Makarowski.

While not technically shut down, guides are wary of ramping up their efforts.

Brad Knowles of Pemberton Fish Finder said he may yet host some tours this summer, but they would look far different from those in prior years. With the borders closed and non-essential travel discouraged, Knowles is considering doing the previously unthinkable: focusing on local anglers.

"If people are going to be fishing, from Vancouver, we're going to keep them as close to Squamish, in that area, as a day trip will allow," he said in late April. "In the past, it's kind of been a no-no, but these are troubled times. People still need to be outside and recreate, and I'm pretty firm with telling clients that if they see me show up in an area that the spot is my spot and they need to move on."

Other adjustments would include meeting on site instead of providing transportation and using individual pleasure crafts to ensure that all members of the party maintained distance.

Knowles said he and his guides were coming off a strong winter of ice fishing and appreciated a bit of a shoulder-season break, but with the weather improving, there's an itch to hit the water again. That said, as a father of four, he is adamant that he won't resume if it's not safe.

In his time fishing on the rivers for pleasure, Knowles has seen more people out than in past years, though he's also seen an increased COS presence to ensure anglers are following regulations.

"As long as everybody's following the rules and regulations, there's a healthy population of fish for everyone to enjoy," he said, noting the Sea to Sky has several stocked lakes in case anyone is looking to catch their dinner.

Meanwhile, Clint Goyette of Squamish-based Valley Fishing Guides Ltd. is pessimistic about operating this summer with the bulk of his business coming from the U.S.

"We'll have to see what happens with the summer. I don't believe that we're going to have, unfortunately, a summer in the region that's going to bring enough people to the region to bring back the guide fishing," he said.

Goyette said the nature of the guiding business makes it unfeasible to transition online.

"We're paid for our information and training in-person," he said. "We don't book trips like hairdressers book haircuts. We book trips based on people coming to the region.

"If there's no people, there's no fishing tour to be had."

While there has been federal and provincial support announced for businesses in myriad sectors, Goyette said the structure of guiding businesses means they're not covered.

"We don't have paycheques, per se. It's paid through dividends or subcontracting to assistant guides," he said. "If you don't have employees, you don't qualify as a business that needs money.

"We fall through the cracks entirely."