Baker | A tale of two controversial fisheries magnates
Bill Barry and Gus Etchegary: Agree or disagree with their views, it matters not to them
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to chat a couple of the most polarizing, and at the same time influential and intriguing people in the fishing industry in this part of the world.
For a fisheries reporter, it was a rare treat for me to be able to interview both Bill Barry and Gus Etchegary. They probably couldn't be more different in some of their personal views, but they do have at least a few things in common: Both men have a vast wealth of experience in the industry, both are passionate about their side of it, and neither of them suffers fools gladly.
Etchegary is never shy with his views, but he currently happens to have a new book out, wherein he chronicles his life in the fishery going back to his first being hired by Fishery Products Ltd. in 1947 —two years before Confederation.
The book is called Empty Nets: How Greed and Politics Wiped Out the World's Greatest Fishery, and if you have an interest in the industry, it's a must-read.
The book walks you through some of the most incredible and influential events in the province's fishing history from the introduction of electricity to fish plants; to the building of Fishery Products International (FPI) into a global fishery powerhouse up until its dismantling; to how the industry has changed, and how it will change for better or worse. The book also touches on some of the surprisingly heavy personal prices he paid in his working life.
Gus is just about 90 years old today, but no less passionate about the business. And his passion — and his past at FPI — continue to draw critical ire. Etchegary recently aired his contrary-minded views about free trade with Europe, and it lit a few political fires.
Former Tory fisheries minister Trevor Taylor took shots at Etchegary, referring to him as "the keeper of the secrets, the purveyor of myths, in his day the last defender of the old mercantile system" in a column in the St. John's Telegram.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale went on the public airwaves and, when asked about Etchegary's CETA criticism, recalled that she grew up across the road from the FPI plant manager's house in Burin, Etchegary's former residence, and that it was apparently a nicer place than the home she grew up in; ergo their views on the fishery have always been different.
During the interview on the Broadcast this week I offered Etchegary the opportunity to rebut Taylor and Dunderdale however he saw fit. He declined.
About Taylor, he would only respond that "people are entitled to their opinions" and suggested that his book provides some context for the criticisms that have come his way about his FPI past. In response to Dunderdale's swipe, he said, "I've known Kathy's family for a lot of years. They lived across the street from me and I had the best of relationship with them. I have nothing more to say about it."
Sometimes it's not what you say, it's what you don't say. Offered an opportunity to fight fire with fire, Etchegary suggested it was better to focus on the issues than to make it personal.
Say what you like, when it comes pressing his views on the issues, like fisheries management, science, trade and the industry itself, Etchegary has been relentless at a time when most of us would be content to just wallow in retirement.
Bill Barry is a lot of things. A successful businessman, an outspoken processor, a bit of a renegade, an athletics ambassador for his province and region, and a polarizing figure loved or loathed depending on whom you talk to.
One thing Bill Barry is not, however, is a shrinking violet.
In an industry where most of the big fish processing players keep things on the down-low and stay undercover, Barry is one of the few who will almost always take your questions and answer them frankly and even unapologetically at times. He's had his public and business missteps and he comes with a few warts (doesn't everyone?), but he loves and lives the fish business intensely, that much is obvious.
The latest Fisheries Broadcast interview was typical Bill: fiery, passionate, inflaming, frank, acerbic, engaging, and most of all, straightforward.
He loves the proposed free trade deal with Europe, but not for the reasons that are listed in the government talking points. Instead, he draws the conclusions based on his own experience over the past 50 years in the processing business.
He thinks critics of the deal need to "go get examined," as he eloquently puts it. He sees a changing fishery, one that will create better incomes but for less people.
His assertion that the industry will be carried out by fewer but larger boats and far fewer but much more efficient plants is one you hear a lot around the industry, but it's not something everyone will say out loud for all to hear.
"That has to be the picture 10 years from now," he said.
"If, as an industry, we are doing anything other than that, then I'll tell you, it's absolute stupidity to be thinking about a direction that is any different than that. All the economic forces are going to shove us there anyway."
Call it guts, call it ego, call it intelligence or call it self-interest, the man is pretty fearless. He's not always right, but he doesn't sit on the fence.
And that's the thing about both Bill Barry and about Gus Etchegary: whether or not you agree with what either gentleman says, you have to respect their willingness to say it.
Unfortunately, it's a waning commodity.