N.L. outfitting season a bust as U.S. border closure wipes out business
Most outfitters rely almost entirely on American hunters
In an industry overwhelmingly reliant on Americans, some outfitters in Newfoundland and Labrador say their businesses are facing near-total losses as the fall hunting season gets underway and the Canada-U.S. border remains shut.
"They were 100 per cent of our business," said Eric Patey, who owns and operates Patey and Sons Outfitting out of River of Ponds.
Patey said he typically brings in about 100 American hunters a year, totalling $800,000 or so in revenue and employing a lot of people in his area of the Northern Peninsula.
"We used to have around 30 people employed at this time of the year now, our guides and cooks and everything else. Basically, we'll have nobody working this fall," he said.
The U.S.-Canada border has been closed to non-essential traffic since mid-March. On Friday, the federal government once again extended that closure date, to Oct. 21, the latest in a series of extensions over the past months as the pandemic continues to ravage the U.S. and ramps up again in parts of Canada.
The province's big game hunting season opened Sept. 12, and while Patey may have nobody out in the bush working to bag a moose, he still has bills: helicopters and airplanes that need to be insured, and upkeep costs on cabins and other equipment.
Despite the financial pressures, Patey said he wholeheartedly supports the border closure.
"With what's happening in the U.S. today, as [much as] we'd like to have them come here, nobody don't want to bring that virus here. So I guess it is what it is. We're going to have to bite the bullet," he said.
The province has issued 709 licences for moose and caribou for non-residents in 2020, compared to 3,849 licences in 2019 and 3,909 in 2018.
Some holding out hope
The owner of one outfitting business based in southwest Newfoundland is holding out hope the border reopens before the season ends.
"I've spoken to every one of my customers and they all want to come, if travel can be accomplished. They're still firmly on the calendar, we're just rescheduling them as necessary," said Mark Pike of Ironbound Outfitters.
While he does have a few Atlantic Canadians booked in on hunts, Pike said if the border remains closed, he'll lose over $1 million in revenue, have no work for 25 employees, and not spend tens of thousands of dollars buying supplies from local stores. Other motels, restaurants and businesses will lose out on money the Americans spend as they tour the province before and after their hunts, he said.
"That's a lot of tourism money that's going to be lost," he said.
Pike also runs a business in Florida, where he is currently based, and said the ongoing border closure is "ridiculous."
"The government really needs to be working on finding some balance between personal safety, but economic stability too," he told CBC Radio's On The Go.
"The coronavirus is here. It's not going to go away. I think in the interest of keeping people employed and maintaining people's livelihoods and jobs and so on, people are going to have to accept some sort of risk."
Public sentiment, however, may not be on Pike's side.
For months, all of Newfoundland and Labrador's positive COVID-19 cases have been travel-related and there is little appetite among the Atlantic provinces to burst the Atlantic bubble, in place since July 3. A poll this week also showed 90 per cent of Canadians support the U.S. border closure.
More 2021 licences?
Both Pike and Patey agree on one point: help is needed from the government to help the struggling industry survive.
Pike said he has written to the provincial government, and said other outfitters have as well, requesting unused 2020 licences be reissued for 2021.
"I think that would be a major help to all outfitters," Pike said.
"Whether we harvest them this year or next year, it really doesn't make that much difference, but it would allow us to get back some of our revenue that we lost this year."
In a statement, the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture said unused 2020 licences can be returned for a full refund.
Patey agreed some sort of aid needs to come, as he worries about what next hunting season could bring.
"God knows how long this is going to be with us. This might not be over next year, who knows? Only God alone, I guess, knows that."
The 2020 big game hunting season runs through to Dec. 31, except in national parks.
With files from On The Go