Nfld. & Labrador

Earle McCurdy’s exit is like his entrance: it comes in uncertain times

Outgoing FFAW president Earle McCurdy was at the helm during the reinvention of the fishing industry, but is taking his leave with dark clouds ahead, Jamie Baker writes.
Earle McCurdy, who has been president of the FFAW since 1993, will step down within two weeks. (CBC)

The rumour had been out there as recently as this past spring that Earle McCurdy would step down as president of the FFAW this fall. And on Monday, McCurdy did just that in announcing he will finish up in two weeks.

A new president will be chosen by the union’s executive board and its sector councils on Nov. 17. Any member of the union in good standing can apply for the job.

But it's a job that few people would really want given the challenges that loom over the industry.

Of course, the situation was no different in 1993 when McCurdy took over from Richard Cashin. The fishery was mired in the devastation of the cod moratorium announced less than a year before.

It looked to many like the industry might collapse completely. McCurdy was handed the reins at a time when there wasn’t anything pulling the cart.

Somehow, the industry prospered

But somehow, he survived. And the industry actually prospered in the years that followed thanks to lucrative crab and shrimp fisheries.

Millionaires were made, in some cases, and the worth of the industry as a whole actually has increased in recent years.

A fellow I know always likes to say if the truth was told about the province’s fishery since 1992, it would be labelled the biggest success story in Canadian history.

Love him or hate him, Earle McCurdy was part of it.

He didn’t come into the job oozing charisma the way Cashin did, and he didn’t command a crowd in the same way. But he made a go of it for 21 years, pretty much unchallenged.

A good scrap

He was a statesman in many ways, and easily one of the most intelligent people I’ve met in my career. While he may not seem to have the same “damn the torpedoes” approach Cashin sometimes did  (I once heard a fisherman say the union was no good in peacetime), McCurdy didn’t mind a scrap with government types or — ahem — the media if he thought the FFAW was wronged in some way.

I didn’t always agree with him. But I always respected the fact he never ducked questions, and always took calls and emails on issues of the day. 

Plus there were some things nobody saw, like the late nights he punched working in his office or the hundreds of thousands of kilometres he drove out on the road.

But now, just like when he came into the job, he leaves it at a time when the industry is facing dark times.

Dark clouds on the horizon

For starters, you can be sure the federal government will again slash shrimp quotas for inshore harvesters in this province come April. That will put 3,200 jobs on the chopping block in rural communities that don’t have other employment options.

It seems clear the next few years are going to be extremely dicey for the FFAW and in the fishing industry in general

The changing marine environment means those lucrative shellfish fisheries like shrimp, and crab, are going to be challenged in terms of available resource. The stocks are decreasing in many areas while groundfish like cod are showing significant rebound.

Considering that crab is worth $2.25 a pound while top-shelf cod fetches 80 cents, it’s a scary prospect for the livelihoods of a great many fishermen.

More to the point, where the hell are we going to process it? The little bit of cod we bring ashore now mostly goes to Icewater in Arnold’s Cove, one of the few remaining facilities in the province that can process cod. Will all the cod be done there and on OCI’s factory freezer boats? If so, that’s great for them, not so good for everyone else.

Add to that issues around environmental challenges, marketing, fisheries management, labour shortages in fishing and processing, declining union membership, and a holy host of other items, and it seems clear the next few years are going to be extremely dicey for the FFAW and in the fishing industry in general.

There is a lot of anger and concern among many union members as the industry goes through what looks to be another monumental shift.

On Nov. 17, the FFAW will have its new president. He or she better get their long boots ready to go to work, because there won’t be any time for honeymoons.

About the Author

Jamie Baker

Fisheries

Jamie Baker hosts The Broadcast each weekday on CBC Radio.

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