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 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.”
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.”
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.”