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Lost Ferry's Toll on North Coasters

As tourists cancel, locals demand answers.

Heather Ramsay 31 Mar
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It's been more than a week since the biggest and best of the aging northern ferry fleet, the Queen of the North, sank under what are still foggy circumstances. British Columbians cheered the crew for the successful evacuation of the vessel and the people of Hartley Bay for their heroic work to bring the passengers ashore. On the Queen Charlotte Islands, people stocked up on groceries, worrying when they would see more supplies. Many have wondered with nail-biting impatience what happened to the two missing people, what the impact of the leaking fuel will be on the marine environment and most especially, what the hell happened on the bridge of that ship.

Underlying all of this drama, has been a growing unease, a concern among coastal communities - the bed and breakfast owners, the fishing guides, the kayak operators, the restaurateurs and more - all anxiously awaiting word of proposed solutions before the busy summer season begins.

Already, one group of tourist kayakers, after conferring with BC Ferries, has pulled the plug on a trip months away.

Meanwhile, the NDP MLA representing the North Coast wonders why the government and BC Ferries still won't let his constituents in on the details of plans, at least four years old, for new ferries on northern routes.

Stop gap measures?

At least 75,000 passengers take one of the three northern route ferries each summer. Some are residents traveling to and from summer destinations, but many are visitors looking to experience what BC Ferries has been increasingly marketing as a romantic summer cruise.

After a long, rainy winter, the summer schedules crank up a notch. The Queen of the North starts running daily between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert. The Queen of Prince Rupert covers the route between Prince Rupert and Skidegate six days a week, instead of three, and the Queen of Chilliwack sails the Discovery Coast between Bella Coola and Port Hardy with three round trips weekly.

"If they go to a winter schedule in the summer, it will have a dramatic effect," said Masset Mayor Barry Pages at a March 27 council meeting. Such a drastic change would set the island's blossoming tourism industry back ten years, he warned.

Islanders are not the only ones concerned.

"It's the difference between our company making money or losing money," said Steve Smith, the general manager of The Crest Hotel in Prince Rupert. Smith, whose family built the Crest in 1960 when the then-new Queen of Prince Rupert started to bring passengers north, says 60 percent of his hotel's summer guests are ferry passengers.

But now there are the hundreds of tourists worldwide who may be taking a sober look at their plans to travel to Northern BC this summer.

"We're competing in a world market," he says. Tourists on the Inside Passage and the Queen Charlotte Islands routes come from the United States, Europe and Asia. Any uncertainty could tip the scale for people who may decide to try Canada in two or three years instead, he says.

Kayakers pull out

Mary Kellie of Queen Charlotte Adventures has had at least one group cancel a kayaking trip already, at a loss to her of $8,000.

She says her clients were told by BC Ferries to make other arrangements for their travel to the islands, even though they weren't scheduled to arrive until late June.

A BC Ferries spokesperson says that was a mistake, but with ferry plans so up in the air, Kellie has no way to reassure her clients.

Smith says the north coast has been abandoned countless times, with the Coast Guard giving reprieves to the aged vessels and everyone going around with one eye winking that the northern ferry route will be alright.

"The loss of the Queen of the North is a catastrophe, not unlike an oil spill in Alaska or the fires in the Okanogan a couple of years ago," he says.

But out of the ashes, what may arise?

Kent Miller is an industrial economist based in Ketchikan, Alaska and the consultant who helped develop the Alaska Inter-Island Ferry service, an innovative answer to lagging service for the Queen Charlottes' closest island neighbours, 40 kilometers straight north on Prince of Wales Island.

He understands the impacts his BC neighbours are facing, but he also suggests this is the perfect time to jump out of the box and take stock of the needs of coastal communities. And he's coming to Haida Gwaii to tell people so.

Do-it-yourself ferry?

Long before the Queen of the North was ripped open on Gil Island, the Queen Charlotte Chamber of Commerce had been planning a unique engagement. The ad campaign in the local newspaper suggested a meeting between the royals might lead to a long-term union. Both islands are in the same remote north Pacific region and have similar economic and transportation gaps.

The economic forum set for April 8 will cover tourism, fisheries, culture and forestry, but especially relevant is the a chance for islanders to learn from Mr. Miller's transportation experiences on the Prince of Wales Island.

When he got involved, the island was being served sporadically by the Alaska State Ferries, he said. In summer, the ferry came several times a week, but in winter, it was down to several times a month and never reliable.

In January, the year before the Inter-Island Ferry System started, the 4,000 people on Prince of Wales Island didn't see a ferry for two weeks. When it did arrive, it came in the middle of the night.

The city of Craig decided that was enough. In 1997, the council went on the road and organized community meetings all over Southeast Alaska to find out what the local service priorities were.

What they were told was probably not surprising to anyone but the Alaska State Ferry system. Southeast Alaskans wanted daily service to Ketchikan in the winter and twice daily in summer.

City-owned system

When the state ferry system was unable to provide the service, the islanders went one step further. They decided to provide it themselves.

The first ferry ran in 2002 and now Alaska's Inter-Island Ferry System boasts two ferries, the M/V Prince of Wales and the M/V Stikine, which carry passengers and vehicles between Petersburg, Wrangel and communities on Prince of Wales Island. The boats carry 170 passengers and 30 standard automobiles and were built in Anacortes, Washington, at a cost of $30 million USD.

The system, owned by a municipal authority, is now paying its operating costs from the fare box.

Miller says northern BC communities are lucky to have BC Ferries, which he considers a dedicated public service doing a stellar job.

"They may provide a nice alternative," he says, referring to a short-term, stop-gap measure. But where the service should it go in the future, he says, is something the communities should decide.

Ferry study 'went confidential'

Gary Coons, MLA for the North Coast, would like answers about the future of the northern route as well.

An in-depth review of the northern routes began in the spring of 1999 and, at that time, it was apparent that several key factors would guide the decision-making process. According to a July 2002 paper found on the BC Ferries website "These issues include: aging vessels, regional tourism and economic development issues, mid-coast freight obligations, the need to replace the Discovery Coast vessel, the Queen of Chilliwack and the financial performance of the routes."

Coons says northern communities have been promised three new ships, but he's never seen the actual report. "As soon as it hit [Minister of Transportation] Kevin Falcon's desk, it went confidential," he says.

Since the treasury board approved an estimate $350 million for the new ferries, Coons has heard rumours the province hired a marine architect to help revise the ship plans. He wants to know if the vessels will still meet the needs of ferry-dependant communities.

"These will be our vessels for the next 30 years," he says, and northern communities need to be part of the process to design these ferries.

The Skeena-Queen Charlotte Regional District is calling for a louder voice for coastal communities, too.

For his part, Smith was unimpressed that an April 7 ferry advisory committee meeting, a committee he stands on, was cancelled. He understands BC Ferries has a lot on their plate right now, but when will the northern communities get to have their say.

Fast-tracking new vessels is not a solution, he adds. "People with hotels and motels can't wait for three years. We've got to get on with business."

Heather Ramsay, based in Queen Charlotte City, is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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