Bella Coola is losing its direct summer ferry service. The Discovery Coast Passage sailing, known as the ‘Circle Route,’ which normally runs from May to September, is a crucial piece of the tourism industry in the Valley, and the loss is expected to be a devastating blow.
In its place, the winter connector service by the Nimpkish will be extended year-round, connecting Ocean Falls, Shearwater and Bella Coola to Bella Bella and the north-south Prince Rupert to Port Hardy service. Full details of the service have yet to be announced.
“It is sad news that BC Ferries have decided to cut the summer service,” said CCRD CAO Darla Blake. “While BC Ferries has stated they wish to protect basic service to coastal communities for future generations, the reality is their decision will no doubt have a significant negative impact on our Central Coast tourism, economic sustainability, and opportunities for getting across to the island.”
The government is insisting the cuts are necessary to keep the ferry system sustainable. In a news release, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure declared, “the government of B.C. is charting a new course for our coastal ferries’ future. The guiding principles behind all future decisions to affect the coastal ferry service will be based on an affordable, efficient and sustainable system which protects basic service to coastal communities for future generations.”
While the Bella Coola – Port Hardy route is the only route to be effectively cancelled other routes will see a reduction in service, especially those in the north and minor routes around Vancouver Island.
“The first phase is service reductions to lower-use round trip sailings on the minor routes, and on the higher-cost northern routes, accounting for $14 million in net savings,” said Transportation Minister Todd Stone. “These service adjustments will be implemented in April 2014.”
The announcement has set off a firestorm in Bella Coola, with residents and tourism operators alike dismayed and outraged by the cuts. North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice was quick to react. “I am totally shocked and appalled. I have expressed my dismay to the QCI Observer and the Prince Rupert Northern View,” said Rice. “Please have people talk to me about how this impacts their lives.”
There are also serious reductions in service to Bella Bella. The Heiltsuk Nation has reacted strongly to the news, with Chief Councilor Marilyn Slett stating that the ferries are a life line for people on the Central Coast.
“What BC Ferries is proposing is equivalent to cutting off a major highway in the Lower Mainland, and people living there wouldn’t allow it to happen,” said Slett.
Stone also announced seniors discounts on the routes will be cut. “As of April 1, 2014, the current 100 per cent passenger fare discount received by B.C. seniors (65 and older) travelling Monday to Thursday will be reduced to 50 per cent on major and minor routes.”
He also announced BC Ferries may add slot machines to its main routes, starting with a pilot project on sailings between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay. Slot machines will added to vessels sailing between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay as part of a test project by BC Ferries and the B.C. Lottery Corporation.
Despite the fact that the decision to cut the service appears to have already been made, there is a Community Engagement Meeting on Friday, November 22 at Lobelco Hall at 5:30 where residents are encouraged to come and state their views.