Premier Kathy Dunderdale saw plenty of exciting things on Fogo and Change Islands Thursday, but ultimately it was a marginal fish plant that gave her the greatest pause.
In the Change Islands school gymnasium — which has about 25 students in K-12 — Dunderdale was asked directly by a member of the community, “What about that fish plant, b’y?”
Earlier in the day she had toured another fish plant in Fogo, where sea cucumbers are being processed for added weeks of production. But in Change Islands, the outlook is more bleak.
The plant struggles to be viable and workers struggle to get enough weeks of employment to qualify for EI.
“We walked away from subsidizing plants for a very good reason. You know, we can’t keep dozens and dozens of plants going if there’s not a good business plan,” Dunderdale told the community.
“We’ve got too many people chasing too few fish, and these plants are going to collapse and fail because they’re not on sound economic models.”
She said the PC government tried to fix the fishery with its raw materials sharing plan, but got raked over the coals for it.
“We needed a police escort in and out of the House of Assembly,” she recalled.
“But the minute the market starts to take care of the issue and close plants, people come to the government and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
The Liberals —including former MHA Danny Dumaresque, who is running in the district covered by Change Islands — have been critical of the government’s record on the fishery.
At its core, Dunderdale said politics is the problem.
“The time for foolishness and everybody’s separate agendas has got to stop. We’ve all got to come together, sit down at the table and find the solutions that work,” she said.
“Everybody had better get over it — and needs to get over it — and we’ve got to come together and get this industry on its feet.”
Outside the school as everyone was leaving, Kevin Ledrew — who had asked the question about the plant — said he’s been living in Change Islands for 47 years, fished for 30 years and worked in Fort McMurray for five years.
He said he never wants to go back to Alberta.
“I’m here until the lights go out,” he said.
“This is a sin, to watch this place just go down.”
But later in the day, in an interview with The Telegram, Dunderdale said it might not be possible to save the plant.
“There may not be a future for the Change Islands fish plant, and that’s the harsh reality of it. But we’ve got to sit and we’ve got to see if that’s the case. There might be some innovation that we can use,” she said.
“The bottom line is we’re not going to find solutions for every plant because we have overcapacity. We have too many people.”
Earlier in the day, Dunderdale was on neighbouring Fogo Island, where she observed the sea cucumbers being processed, and got a tour of a luxury hotel being built by millionaire Zita Cobb.
Cobb said she’s had a great time working with the government to create an artistic retreat on Fogo.
“I think we’ve got a wonderful relationship with the government,” she said.
“Early on, when we first started the project, we spent a lot of time in St. John’s explaining what we wanted to do, and what the dream was.”
Dunderdale praised Cobb’s work.
The unique architectural studios being built on Fogo are attracting attention from international media, and bringing artists to the island.