Re­tire­ment from ERMA bit­ter­sweet for Par­sons

The Beacon (Gander) - - Community - BY KRYSTA CAR­ROLL SPE­CIAL TO THE AD­VER­TISER

The Ex­ploits is a world-class, in­dus­try-lead­ing river, but how many ac­tu­ally know its his­tory?

Fred Par­sons, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Ex­ploits River Man­age­ment As­so­ci­a­tion (ERMA), re­mem­bers it all as if it was the re­cent past.

“I came here in May of 1985 and I signed a three-month em­ploy­ment con­tract,” Par­sons said.

Thirty-three years later Par­sons is re­tir­ing, and this past sum­mer Randy Edi­son was hired to take his place and learn the ropes. The his­tory Edi­son is learn­ing plays a big part in plans going for­ward.

ERMA was cre­ated when clo­sures in the mill led to some early re­tire­ments and job losses. The cham­ber of com­merce kicked in to help, with a man­date to de­velop the econ­omy in cen­tral New­found­land us­ing nat­u­ral re­sources as the base.

“They didn’t know where this would take them,” Par­sons said. “The plans in 1985 wasn’t to build an in­ter­pre­ta­tion cen­tre and an RV park.

“I of­ten say are we an en­vi­ron­men­tal group with busi­ness over­tones, or are we a busi­ness group with en­vi­ron­men­tal over­tones. I re­ally don’t know,” Par­sons said.

When Par­sons be­gan with the group, there wasn’t a big run of salmon on the Ex­ploits River. Build­ing mas­sive fish ways was one of ERMA’s first ini­tia­tives, build­ing $2- and $3-mil­lion projects in-house.

“At the same time, we built a mas­sive hatch­ery that we used to stock the river,” Par­sons said. “The Ex­ploits wasn’t a salmon river. It’s a per­son-made river.”

In the late 1970s, there were 1,500 fish in the river, Par­sons said – a num­ber ERMA has brought to close to 50,000.

In 1992 the group built the Sal­monid In­ter­pre­ta­tion Cen­tre, and the fol­low­ing year added a restau­rant.

“It only seems like yes­ter­day,” Par­sons said.

ERMA’s bi­o­log­i­cal di­vi­sion is also an im­por­tant en­tity.

“We do con­tact work for Nal­cor, New­found­land Power, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment – we have done work for Teck, all this is in fresh wa­ter bi­ol­ogy,” said Par­sons.

The self-con­tained, self-fi­nanced group is also in­volved in habi­tat im­prove­ment. ERMA is in part­ner­ships with Me­mo­rial Univer­sity and is as­sist­ing in re-es­tab­lish­ing At­lantic salmon in Ren­nies River in St. John’s by send­ing salmon eggs to put into the streams. Tourism con­tin­ues to be im­por­tant, Edi­son added. With 22,000 peo­ple vis­it­ing the in­ter­pre­ta­tion cen­tre this year, ERMA is still stick­ing to its man­date for eco­nomic devel­op­ment. Forty-two peo­ple are em­ployed with ERMA, and a lot of them have been com­ing back for more than 20 years.

The fu­ture

“The first thing is we want is to con­tinue what we got going here, to keep these peo­ple em­ployed,” Par­sons said. “We fig­ure Randy is the per­son who is going to lead the next 10 years.”

Edi­son said the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s sta­bil­ity is re­flected in the staffing, and with the in­fra­struc­ture in place and the right peo­ple hav­ing bought into it, ERMA can look to the fu­ture.

Edi­son will soon be re­port­ing to a 10-per­son vol­un­teer board of direc­tors that pro­vides gov­er­nance, who Par­sons called a “fine bunch of con­sul­tants” who con­trib­ute their time and ex­per­tise.

“That is the kind of ded­i­ca­tion we’ve had over the years,” Par­sons said. “We’ve been blessed on both sides, from hav­ing the ex­cel­lent board of direc­tors to vol­un­teer and such a loyal and ded­i­cated staff.”

Salmon de­cline

The de­cline in At­lantic salmon pop­u­la­tion may send ERMA in its next di­rec­tion, uti­liz­ing skills from their past.

“Our past may very well be our fu­ture,” Par­sons said. “If these num­bers keep going down, there is going to be work to be done.”

Salmon num­bers have been up and down over the years, but there has been con­cern over the last two years. Last year num­bers were down 30 per cent from the five-year av­er­age. This year they are down 55-60 per cent from last year.

“To put it in per­spec­tive, seven years ago we would have counted 45,000 fish through Bishop’s Falls,” Par­sons said. “This year we counted 15,000. Those num­bers are re­flected right across the whole stock. New­found­land and Labrador re­ally is one of the last havens for the At­lantic salmon.”

Par­sons said New­found­land and Labrador has ap­prox­i­mately 60-70 per cent of all the At­lantic salmon in the world.

“We are lead­ers in that field be­cause we’ve done it,” Edi­son said. “I con­sider us lead­ers now in the tourism field be­cause we’ve done it. Now it’s about tak­ing the best prac­tices of what we did and mak­ing it even bet­ter and grow­ing it.”

Talk­ing tourism

Cel­e­brat­ing ERMA’s his­tory and ac­com­plish­ments on the river in part­ner­ship with in­dus­try is one of the ideas Par­sons and Edi­son have dis­cussed.

“The suc­cess story of what got done here in the Ex­ploits re­gion can be cel­e­brated now and sent out to the world,” Edi­son said.

One of the main planks of suc­cess is part­ner­ships, which Edi­son said won’t change.

An­other idea Edi­son has started in­ves­ti­gat­ing with Ad­ven­ture Cen­tral and other tourism and mar­ket­ing as­so­ci­a­tions is called a “sig­na­ture ex­pe­ri­ence,” where in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers come to en­gage in a tourism ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Not just to come and see beau­ti­ful sun­sets, sun­rises, light­houses and mu­se­ums, be­cause they are in ev­ery cor­ner of New­found­land and Labrador,” Edi­son said. “The ex­pe­ri­ence of com­ing here, see­ing the salmon, see­ing those story boards that talk about the habi­tat recla­ma­tion, the part­ner­ships – there is a whole set of peo­ple who want to travel for that kind of ex­pe­ri­ence.

ERMA has es­tab­lished a firm foun­da­tion and a tremen­dous prod­uct, but must reach more peo­ple, Edi­son said.

“It’s not that our en­ergy is going to go into build­ing more, but reach­ing a big­ger au­di­ence to get them en­gaged to tell a re­ally cool story,” Edi­son said. “That’s the legacy of the work, how the river was kept from be­com­ing just an­other river.

“It has be­come, as the cham­ber of com­merce wanted it to be, a real cat­a­lyst of eco­nomic gen­er­a­tion for this area.”

Speak­ing of the fu­ture of ERMA is bit­ter­sweet for Par­sons.

“This has been a life for me,” Par­sons said. “I think it goes with­out say­ing that my in­ter­est that this thing con­tin­ues to be suc­cess­ful and con­tinue to move ahead will still al­ways be there.”

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