By Sage Birchwater
Coast Mountain News
On Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, Ed and Sandy Willson put out signs letting folks know that their business, Bella Coola Valley Seafoods, had closed.
“There’s no fish,” says Ed. “How are you going to run a business with only four or five openings a year?”
The Central Coast commercial gill net fishery opened in June for Spring salmon. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans was anticipating a very poor Chum season again this year, for the third year in a row, and no commercial gillnet fishing openings were made available for Chum.
“On July 5 we had our last opening for Spring salmon. After that it was completely shut down for us to gillnet,” says Ed. “The gillnet fishers were really shocked because the decision to close the fishery came from Ottawa and not from local DFO officials.”
Ed says even the local fisheries officers were blindsided by the decision which was made “higher up.” The difference, he says, is that local fishers have always had input on when to fish and when not to fish.
“We actually had a say in how things were done. Then to get told right from Ottawa that no, you’re shutting down completely as of this date came as a shock.”
Ed is miffed that DFO wasn’t willing to take a chance on even having a test fishery on Chums.
“Quite likely we would have all agreed not to fish anyway,” Sandy adds. “But it’s the principle of the thing.”
Ed says over the years the local fisheries program was one of the best-run offices on the coast.
“We were the last place on the coast that had fish and have a very well-run hatchery.”
For the past 35-plus years Snootli Hatchery in Hagensborg has consistently reared between seven and eight million Chum fry from eggs collected at four sites in the Valley, Snootli Creek, Thorsen Creek, Saloompt Creek and Necleesconnay Creek. Each year the fry are released into those watersheds.
Sandy says the commercial gillnet fishery was shut down 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 poor, as well.
“The last good years for fishing were 2017 and 2018. Are they getting caught elsewhere? That’s another thing we don’t know.”
Because the hatchery produces Chum fry for the fishery, Ed says locals figured it would be a decent year. “The only thing that’s changed, the whole Coast is focused on Area 8 (the commercial fishing region of the Central Coast) because it’s the last place where there’s any abundance of fish to catch.”
In recent days Ed and Sandy have observed Chum salmon coming into the river and going into the side streams, and they say it doesn’t look like there’s going to be an over spawn.
“So we can’t say for sure whether the government was wrong shutting us down,” Ed says.
He and Sandy have mixed feelings. “The way our government has set us up with two sets of rules and regulations, it has made it impossible to plan a future for our business.”
Every day Ed and Sandy check the fences put in the river by Snootli Hatchery staff to capture Chum for the egg harvest. It lets the Willsons see how many Chum are returning. The fences barricade the fish from entering the spawning beds so the hatchery can select the fish they need for their rearing program. The rest of the fish are allowed to enter the channels where they can spawn naturally. Sandy says hatchery officials are optimistic they will have enough Chum for a full egg-take 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 were married,” Ed says.
In 26 seasons they developed Bella Coola Valley Seafoods into a top flight business producing high quality fish products.
“As of now we’re not selling any equipment,” Ed says. “This winter the government is going to buy licences back, so we’ll see.”
Ed reflects on how good the fishing industry has been to them. He says with shutting down Bella Coola Valley Seafoods he’ll particularly miss the young people who have worked for them over the years.
“We’ve had good people working for us and we’ve done a pretty good job,” he says.
“We are fussy about what we do, and deal with quality people like Margetts’ Meats in Williams Lake and Lawrence Meats in Fort St John. And we still do custom processing for the main charter guys.”
Sandy says the key to their success was buying fish from specific commercial fishers who produced the high quality fish they required for their business. With the processing plant no longer operating they won’t be completely gone from the industry. “Eddie loves fishing,” she says. “We don’t want to quit fishing.”