At 98 years old, Gus Etchegary, an industry giant and a long-time advocate for Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishing industry, passed away on May 7.
Etchegary was born on May 28, 1924, in St. Lawrence on Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula. In his nearly 99 years of life, Etchegary witnessed many of the historic events that make N.L. the province it is today — from N.L. becoming a Canadian province in 1949 to the cod moratorium of 1992.
The story of the Etchegary family in Newfoundland began with Gus Etchegary’s grandfather, Michel Etchegary — a Basque fisherman from southern France who crossed the Atlantic on a fishing trip. While he was on the island, he met a girl from Lamaline, a community on the southern tip of the Burin peninsula. Before his ship took off back to Europe, Michel dove into the water and swam back to shore, forfeiting his share of the catch to stay with her.
According to Etchegary, his first memory was a destructive tsunami that ravaged the Burin peninsula on November 18, 1929. The giant waves crashing into the coast at over 40 kilometres an hour left 28 dead and hundreds homeless.
The five-year-old Etchegary would become no stranger to disaster. At the age of 16, he, his father and his older brother were called to action when the USS Truxton and Pollux ran aground near their home in St. Lawrence on February 19, 1941.
The ships were torn apart in the violent and icy seas and despite the efforts of the Etchegarys and other locals to rescue the stranded U.S. sailors, 203 lives were lost that day.
During the Second World War, he served at the American base in Argentia repairing submarines. According to former fisheries journalist, current Executive Director of the Seaward Enterprises Association of Newfoundland and Labrador and a friend of Etchegary’s, Ryan Cleary, his time serving was his foray into the fisheries.
“From that, he was hired by the Monroe company which later became Fishery Products Limited,” said Cleary. “When they were building new plants in places like Gaultois… It was at that point that Newfoundland transitioned from hundreds of years of salt fish to fresh fish and the building of refrigeration capacity. He built the fresh fish plant for freezing fish in places like Gaultois and Isle aux Morts. He was part of that whole transition.”
From his humble beginnings working as an electrician, Etchegary worked his way up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming the president of Fishery Products Limited, the predecessor to Fishery Products International. His knowledge of the industry that resulted from working his way up from the bottom was vast. It was this knowledge, according to Cleary, that helped him see the writing on the wall for the disastrous collapse of the Atlantic cod stocks.
“Every single morning, he’d get his facts and figures on what was coming in from the trawlers,” said Cleary. “He did that week after week, month after month and year after year so that he could see, slowly, a decline in the catch rates and catch per unit effort and the size of the fish.”
Etchegary realized because Canada’s continental shelf goes beyond Canada’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), migratory species that roam the continental shelf could be plundered by foreign overfishing. In the 1970s, he sought to strike a deal between Newfoundland and the Canadian government to extend the Canadian EEZ to the edge of the continental shelf.
“He thought he had that commitment in writing secured — that this would happen,” said Cleary. “He thought he had that, and then he eased off. And in 1977, they brought in the 200-mile limit. That was one of his biggest frustrations in his career.”
Etchegary served as the President of Fishery Products Limited until his retirement in 1988, after which he penned his one and only book, Empty Nets: How Greed and Politics Wiped Out The World’s Greatest Fishery. In it, he rails against the government for what he perceived as mismanagement of the fishery, at his fellow Newfoundlanders for what he saw as apathy to its decimation and at himself for not pushing for what he thought was best for the fishery, the province and the country.
“There needs to be an enforcement regime for the entire Grand Banks to the edge of the continental shelf for the good of not just Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada, but for the good of the world in terms of healthy fish stocks — what were once the greatest fish stocks in the world, and a return to that,” said Cleary. “His legacy is the fact that that fight will continue. It will not stop until it happens.”
As this local titan in the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery passes on, he leaves to mourn his wife, two sons, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and the countless people with whom his message of securing a strong, healthy fishery still resounds today.
“I don’t think Gus Etchegary was important just to the fishery,” Cleary reminisced on his long-time friend and mentor. “He’s kind of a key figure in the story of Newfoundland.”