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Gus Etchegary, one of N.L.’s fiercest fisheries advocates, dies at 98

Gus Etchegary has passed away at the age of 98. He was a fierce advocate of the fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador, and a witness to some of the most important events in the province's history. (Marie Isabelle Rochon/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Newfoundland and Labrador has lost one of its strongest voices on fisheries management and rural living. 

Gus Etchegary — fisheries advocate, corporate insider, author and athlete — died on Saturday, three weeks shy of his 99th birthday.

He grew up by the ocean in St. Lawrence on the Burin Peninsula, in a time before Newfoundland and Labrador was a part of Canada. He’d grow to become president of Fisheries Products International, a powerful and sometimes polarizing figure in the province.

Etchegary was active well into his 90s, advising Moya Greene and the premier’s economic recovery team in 2021 on its future planning document for the governing Liberals.

“We made it clear to her that the situation at the present time completely lacks leadership in the province on the part of any other organization to effectively deal with the problem we have,” he told The Broadcast. “Which is a resource that is on its last legs.”

Eyewitness to history

The Rooms
Etchegary’s history with the sea was often rocky. He was five years old when his hometown was struck by an earthquake and tsunami. 

He remembered a plate on the stove began rattling, then the house started shaking and his older sisters scrambled to pull him out of the house and up a hill. Hours later, they watched the unthinkable happen.

“The wave came in and it went back out, and as it receded out, the harbour practically dried out and the bottom of the ocean appeared inside the harbour, and then shortly after there was another huge wave. The second one was even bigger and it continued to destroy the premises of the fishermen,” he told CBC-Radio/Canada on the 90th anniversary in 2019.

“That receded and still a third came and it really demolished most of the fishing equipment, which of course included the boats and the stages and the stores that the fishermen had.”

The tsunami left 28 people dead and hundreds homeless.

Memorial University ArchivesEtchegary was an eyewitness to another ocean disaster Feb. 18, 1942. He was 17 years old when U.S.S. Truxtun and U.S.S. Pollux ran aground on the southern tip of the Burin Peninsula en route to the naval base in Argentia. A total of 289 men went into the water, with 203 perishing. 

Despite being a teenager, Etchegary sprung into action and helped rescue 186 survivors. He was the last living eyewitness to the tragic accident and heroic efforts of locals.

Unlikely route to life in the fishery

Despite growing up near the sea, Etchegary’s family worked in the mines at St. Lawrence and he initially followed in their footsteps.

Etchegary left St. Lawrence after 1942 to train as an electrician. He joined Fishery Products Ltd. in 1947 — in the era when fish plants were adopting refrigeration technology — and grew through the ranks to become a plant manager, and eventually the president of the entire company.

He oversaw 7,000 employees in the 1970s, buying fish from 6,000 inshore fishermen and marketing the products from Asia to Europe.

The glory days didn’t last. About 30,000 people put out of work when the federal government brought an end to the northern cod fishery on July 2, 1992. In the post-moratorium era, Etchegary became one of the province’s most authoritative voices on fisheries issues, often railing against the provincial and federal governments for what he saw as a lack of leadership and care for the industry.

He held various positions over the years, including chairman of the Fisheries Council of Canada, chairman of the Fisheries Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canadian commissioner to International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic and the North Atlantic Fishery Organization.

In 2013, at the age of 89, he became an author. His memoir, Empty Nets: How Greed and Politics Wiped Out the World’s Greatest Fishery, followed his life from pre-Confederation Newfoundland to his days as a powerhouse in the fishery and its subsequent collapse.

Ambassador for Newfoundland soccer

On top of his illustrious career in the fishery, Etchegary is also noted for his contributions to sport in Newfoundland and Labrador.

He was the province’s first inductee to the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in 2007, after serving on the board of directors and as vice-president for Canada Soccer. He also served as president of the Burin Pensinsula Athletic Association and the provincial soccer association.

Speaking with the Telegram after his induction, Etchegary told stories about being a player on the Burin Peninsula throughout the 1940s and 50s. He recalled one occasion where his team travelled to the French island of St. Pierre in a 35-foot open trap skiff with 15 players on board, each “equipped with a rubber tire in lieu of standard life jackets.”

“We lost the first game [to St. Pierre] but recovered from seasickness to win the second game,” he said.

Condolences pouring in

There is no word yet on funeral arrangements for Etchegary, but tributes are pouring in from politicians and fisheries figures alike.

Ryan Cleary, a fisheries advocate and head of SEA-NL, called him “the ultimate fighting Newfoundlander,” as well as a friend and mentor.

Premier Andrew Furey, in a social media post, said Etchegary was “a stalwart of the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador, whose depth of knowledge will be deeply missed.” Furey said he always enjoyed their “candid discussions.”

Senator David Wells also posted about Etchegary’s passing, saying, “We worked together at FPI in the early 1980s and played rec hockey weekly back then. A storied career and a legacy that will live on.”

He leaves behind his wife, Kay, as well as sons Glenn and Grant.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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