Lack of fish forces Bella Coola Valley Seafoods on the Central Coast to close – 100 Mile House Free Press
By Sage Birchwater
Coastal Mountain News
On Sunday, August 1, 2021, Ed and Sandy Willson put up signs informing people that their business, Bella Coola Valley Seafoods, had closed.
“There’s no fish,” Ed said. “How are you going to run a business with only four or five openings a year? “
The central coast commercial gillnet fishery opened in June for spring salmon. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans was once again expecting a very bad chum season this year, for the third year in a row, and no commercial gillnet openings were offered for chum.
“On July 5th, we had our last opening for spring salmon. After that, we closed the gillnet completely, ”says Ed.“ The gillnet fishermen were really shocked because the decision to close the fishery came from Ottawa and not from local DFO officials.
Ed says even the local fishery officers were blinded by the decision that was made “above.” The difference, he says, is that local fishermen have always had a say in when to fish and when not to fish.
“We actually had a say in how things were done. Then to be told directly from Ottawa that no, you shut down completely from that date was a shock. “
Ed is upset that DFO did not want to take the risk of even having a test fishery on Chums.
“Chances are we would all have agreed not to fish anyway,” Sandy adds. “But that’s the principle of the thing.”
Ed says that over the years the local fisheries program has been one of the best managed offices on the coast.
“We were the last place on the coast to have fish and a very well run hatchery. “
Over the past 35+ years, the Snootli Hatchery in Hagensborg has consistently reared between seven and eight million chum fry from eggs collected from four sites in the valley, Snootli Creek, Thorsen Creek, Saloompt Creek and Necleesconnay Creek. Each year, the fry are released into these watersheds.
Sandy says the commercial gillnet fishery was closed early last year because there weren’t enough fish and too many boats on the water competing for them. On top of that, COVID was a factor. In 2019, salmon returns were also poor.
“The last good years for fishing were 2017 and 2018. Are they getting caught elsewhere? This is another thing we don’t know.
Because the hatchery produces chum fry for the fishery, Ed says locals thought it would be a decent year. “The only thing that has changed, the entire coast is focused on Area 8 (the central coast commercial fishing region) because it is the last place where there is an abundance of fish to be caught.”
For the past few days, Ed and Sandy have observed chum salmon entering the river and going into secondary streams, and they say it doesn’t look like there will be excessive spawning.
“So we can’t say for sure whether the government was wrong to shut us down,” Ed says.
He and Sandy have mixed feelings. “The way our government set us up with two sets of rules and regulations, made it impossible to plan a future for our business. “
Every day, Ed and Sandy check the fences placed in the river by the staff at the Snootli Hatchery to capture Chum for the egg harvest. This allows the Willsons to see how many Chums are coming back. Fences prevent fish from entering spawning grounds so the hatchery can select the fish they need for their breeding program. The rest of the fish are allowed to enter the channels where they can spawn naturally. Sandy says hatchery officials are optimistic they’ll have enough chum for a full egg catch this year.
Ed and Sandy started Bella Coola Valley Seafoods in 1996 after fishing commercially together for 20 years. “We started fishing together in 1976, the year we got married,” says Ed.
In 26 seasons, they have made Bella Coola Valley Seafoods a leading company producing high quality fish products.
“Right now we don’t sell any equipment,” Ed says. “This winter the government is going to buy back licenses, so we’ll see. “
Ed reflects on how good the fishing industry has been for them. He says that with the closure of Bella Coola Valley Seafoods, he will be especially missed by the young people who have worked for them over the years.
“We have good people working for us and we’ve done a really good job,” he says.
“We are picky about what we do and deal with quality people like Margetts’ Meats in Williams Lake and Lawrence Meats in Fort St John. And we always provide personalized treatment for the major charterers.
Sandy says the key to their success was buying fish from specific commercial fishermen who produced the high quality fish they needed for their business. With the shutdown of the processing plant, they will not be completely withdrawn from the industry. “Eddie loves fishing,” she says. “We don’t want to stop fishing.
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