Belleoram — It’s wasn’t long ago that the prospects for Belleoram didn’t look good.
That was before aquaculture.
“Aquaculture has changed the economy of Belleoram,” Mayor Steward May said.
“This was a heavy social services community and high EI. People came from social services and went to work for Cooke’s, and they turned their lives around.”
Along the south coast of Newfoundland, the economy is humming. People are working and communities are growing, all thanks to the millions of Atlantic salmon being farmed in the bays and inlets.
In St. Alban’s, the fish plant is operating year-round.
The Harbour Breton plant is
also going full tilt, and Cooke
Aquaculture has plans to leave the facility behind as soon as it can build its own state-of-the-art plant there.
Hermitage will get in on the action soon, too; Gray’s Aquaculture is hoping to have a refurbished plant up and running there by the fall.
“We’re a long way off the beaten track, you know? Coming down that Bay d’Espoir highway, we don’t get a lot of visitors,” said Clyde Collier, one of Newfoundland aquaculture’s pioneers.
“People in the region certainly know it, but I’m not so sure the rest of Newfoundland knows what we’re doing.”
Collier has been farming fish in Newfoundland since the mid-1980s. Today he’s vice-president of operations for New Brunswick-based Gray Aqua Group.
For most of Collier’s career in Newfoundland aquaculture, things have been happening on a pretty small scale.
Then, in 2006, the industry exploded.
“All of a sudden it went exponential,” said local Conservative MHA Tracy Perry.
Cooke Aquaculture announced that they would be putting three million young fish annually into new farms along the south coast.
Other industry players quickly followed suit.
But the “exponential” growth came with heavy government involvement.
The provincial government courted Cooke and the other aquaculture companies.
At the same time Cooke announced it would be putting $135 million into setting up shop on the south coast, the provincial government announced it would provide $10 million in support.
The deal also came with federal money; the Department of Fisheries and Oceans put up $4.5 million and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency invested $6 million.
Taxpayers’ dollars have continued to flow.
Last week, Premier Kathy Dunderdale was in the area to open an $8.8-million Centre for Aquatic Health and a pair of new wharfs dedicated exclusively to aquaculture operations.
During the visit, Dunderdale raved about the impact of fish farming.
“This is what we dream about for every part of the province,” she said.
Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Clyde Jackman said taxpayers’ money should be seen as the seed which built an entire industry.
He said as time goes by, the need for government support should taper off.
“We’ve got Gray’s now going into Hermitage, and no doubt about it, they’ll come in seeking funds for it,” he said.
“But I think the further we get along, the less dependent the industry will become on government. It will get to a point where it’s self-sustaining.”
Government members also argue that the taxpayers’ investment has leveraged millions from private companies.
What’s clear is that at least for the moment, the money is having an effect.
More than 1,000 people are employed directly or indirectly by aquaculture, and the expansion continues.
“We had the glory of being probably the poorest place on the island of Newfoundland,” Collier said.
“I don’t think we’re the poorest place anymore. We’ve got a pretty good thing going on here.”
Tomorrow: Labour shortages and the future of Newfoundland aquaculture