Nfld. & Labrador

Fight for our fisheries, advocate urges N.L. candidates

Gus Etchegary wants provincial politicians to pressure Ottawa for more control over its renewable resource, as candidates weigh in on their election-related fishery thoughts.

Provincial politicians need to pressure Ottawa for more control, says Gus Etchegary

The clock is ticking to rebuild and revitalize fishing communities in rural parts of the province, like St. Lawrence seen here, says Gus Etchegary. (Marie-Isabelle Rochon/Radio-Canada)

Gus Etchegary doesn't mince words when it comes to the state of Newfoundland and Labrador's fishery.

The longtime fishery advocate laments that since the 1992 cod moratorium the federal government has "practically abandoned" the province's fishery.

"Today, we're down to rock bottom," he said.

Despite that dour assessment, Etchegary has immense hope for the industry's future, and he's urging for it to become an bigger issue in the provincial election campaign.

The fishery is federally regulated, but he says doesn't absolve the provincial government from its role "to be continuously pressuring Ottawa to take on the role that they were given in 1949, and that is to manage our fisheries in the same style as Iceland and Norway," he said, pointing to two fishing powerhouses in the North Atlantic.

That pressure, however, has faded in recent years, he said, with "the loss of any recognition by successive provincial governments, elected representatives, to know and understand what the long-term benefit of this rebuilding the fishery can be for the future," he said.

To Etchegary, such benefits are clear.

"It's a renewable industry. Oil is not, and it's going to have more and more problems, if people would face the issues," Etchegary said.

Etchegary has met with the province's economic task force to press for more work on fisheries, and says the meeting was productive. (Marie Isabelle Rochon/Radio-Canada)

Parties' positions

No major party has, so far, released an election platform that fully details its plans to navigate the province's economic rough waters. But each weighed in on the fishery on CBC Radio's The Broadcast, with Liberal candidate, and former fisheries minister, Elvis Loveless unwilling to pit oil and fishing against each other even as concerns are raised about the impact of the former's seismic exploration activities.

"There's no reason why we can't do both. A balanced approach is important. I think we can do both, because both industries are crucial and vital to Newfoundland and Labrador," said Loveless, who is running in Fortune Bay-Cape La Hune.

Tony Wakeham, running for the Progressive Conservatives in Stephenville-Port au Port, agreed "a balanced approach is the way to go," while NDP St. John's Centre candidate Jim Dinn urged for proper measures to be put in place to ensure "long after the extractive resource is gone, we're still going to have a fishery."

On Friday, the PCs announced they would, if elected, cut bureaucracy in the fishery and grow the industry in a sustainable way, while getting the provincial government more involved by striving for joint management with Ottawa.

"We need to help our fish harvesters and our coastal communities rejuvenate their economies by working directly with those in the industry, and not with government and bureaucrats," said Wakeham.

The Liberals and NDP also stressed giving the people working on boats, and those in fish and processing plants, a bigger say in their industry's future.

"That's who we need to be listening to, I believe, in terms of making decisions," said Loveless.

From left, the PCs' Tony Wakeham, Liberals' Elvis Loveless, and the NDP's Jim Dinn all shared their fishery-related election thoughts on CBC Radio's The Broadcast. (CBC)

Boost the science

Part of the ability to make good decisions is being well informed, and one thing the politicians have been hearing so far on the campaign trail is a need for more data as to what's happening in the water.

The Liberals would like to wrest some of that control from the federal government.

"We need to conduct our own science," said Loveless. "We need to do it right here with our stamp of approval on it."

With climate change making its presence known in the province — from a lack of sea ice in Labrador to the warmest-ever temperatures recorded in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — Dinn said ramping up science is needed now more than ever.

"It's having some effects on our fishery, so we definitely need to put more research there so we have better data to go on," Dinn said.

To better boost research, Wakeham said, fish harvesters should be involved.

"Listen to the people in the industry, that are out on the water, and work with them," he said, accusing the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans of being "lax in their science efforts."

Etchegary was less politically diplomatic in his feelings about federal fishery science, calling it "stupid and ridiculous" for scientists to have to rely on grants from special interest groups instead of adequate government funding to complete their work.

"Unless and until there's a restoration of the science department in Newfoundland — the DFO science department — we're in real trouble trying to rebuild the resource," Etchegary said.

Fish, foreign investment and the future

Etchegary's verve and vigour belie his age, but his memory gives it away.

Now in his mid-90s, he has ties to the fishery that stretch to the pre-Confederation era, and can recall the bounty of the 1970s, when he presided over 7,000 employees in the 1970s, buying fish from 6,000 inshore fishermen and marketing the products from Asia to Europe.

But as the fishery's heyday moves further into history with each passing year — next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the cod moratorium — the clock is ticking, he said, for the remnants of the industry to stay afloat.

"People living in fishing communities in Newfoundland, their very survival into the next 20, 25 years is dependent on the revival and a rebuilding of the fishery," he said.

The Quinlan Brothers fish plant in Bay de Verde is one of four plants that Royal Greenland bought in 2020. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Some of those fishing communities saw big changes in 2020, as the Dutch Crown corporation Royal Greenland became the largest fish processor in the province, snapping up processing plants and licences.

The fishery's union spoke out against the move at the time, and the NDP continue to question whether a foreign player will look after communities' long-term interests.

"Bigger is not better. I do believe that somehow we've got to find a way to start putting control back into the communities," said Dinn.

Loveless defended the move, which he approved in the fall, saying Royal Greenland had so far spent about $21 million in the province.

"It's about jobs for rural Newfoundland and Labrador, and I stand by my decision," he said.

Loveless also left the door open to such deals in the future.

"Foreign investment will always be around, and I'm at the table. If it means an opportunity for Newfoundland and Labrador and benefiting fish plant workers, harvesters, processors, whatever, I'm there to listen," he said.

Wakeham pointed to the PC plan, which promised to give the province's fish processing licensing board — an unelected body, which recommended the Royal Greenland deal — more ability to inquire about foreign investment deals.

"We are definitely going to pursue it. We think it's important," he said.

In such a regulated, nuanced industry, any future plan forward is a complex one. But for Etchegary, the decision come voting day is a simple one.

"To the voters of Newfoundland, vote for candidates who will put the rebounding and the rebuilding of the fishery as top priority for them," he said.

The provincial election is Feb. 13.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jane Adey and Todd O'Brien

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