Friday, April 3, 2009

The Waterfront: Then and Now (but this is NOW)

Gloucester’s future is in our harbor. In my youth our harbor was our lifeblood. If this city is to survive economically without a substantial fishing industry, our harbor planners must accept the reality of change. Before we take off willy nilly, we should examine the past: what went on in our harbor since 1950, the pivotal year and highest period of our harbor’s fishing production. Before we can decide on any new harbor strategy, the planners must review where we’ve been.

Our off-shore fleet of the 1950s numbered approximately 150 large vessels fishing from Georges to the Grand Banks. In Harbor Cove, the Gloucester Whiting Association member vessels numbered approximately 50 inshore day boats. The Italian community also manned a seining fleet of approximately fifteen highline vessels responsible for landing millions of pounds of mackerel in the beginning and, later, menhaden (pogies) being the money fish for that fleet. Gloucester also boasted a fleet of gillnetters as well as an off-shore Portuguese swordfishing fleet in season. We also serviced a substantial fleet of southern draggers in the summer months. Together these vessels made up our fleet of about 250 active fishing businesses. That waterfront scene has vanished. We are left with a handful of inshore day boats, highly restricted in their fishing activity and rapidly being regulated out of business. The reality is, fishing as we once knew it is no more!

Scene at Ben Pine’s Atlantic Supply Wharf, circa 1947(now Capt. Carlos’ property)

While we are quick to point to an endangered resource and blame excess governmental regulation for our current fishing demise, there is another basic factor affecting any hoped-for resurgence of Gloucester’s fishery. Our 1950 era wharfside way of processing fish products is over.

The fish business has changed profoundly because products and marketing methods of the industry have had to respond to modern-day consumer demands. Gone are canned codfish cakes, canned mackerel, layer-pack redfish fillets, and H&G whiting. Today’s sophisticated consumer is demanding more. Our lifestyles have changed also, requiring fish processors to develop an endless array of easily prepared microwaveable products, fast food McDonald’s fish portions, and school lunch programs featuring fish sticks items. Demand for these easily prepared products is immense and the ingredients (domestic fish) are not available in the required volume, at least in Gloucester. We are not capable of meeting the fast food industry demand, nor have we been for over fifty years. These changes in demand and consumer preferences have had far-reaching consequences on the processing side of the fish business. Our raw material now is purchased around the globe, imported frozen, arriving in Gloucester by trailer truck for processing. There is no need to provide shore side wharf locations to manufacture the fish products of today. This has been demonstrated time and again, starting back in our own urban renewal days in the 1960s when Booth Fisheries relocated to New Hampshire on the side of I-95. Most recently, our own Good Harbor Fillet Company relocated from the Fort to Blackburn Industrial Park. These are revolutionary changes in the fish processing side of our domestic fish producing industry. The world’s fish production can be processed almost anywhere, where labor and other production costs and proximity to markets and distribution points are favorable.

NOW.....That is the history. In short, it’s not the demise of our fish supply alone; it’s also the lifestyle changes we’ve adopted along the way. Our desires and needs are different. While the local fish resource has declined, our way of life has shifted. Soccer moms no longer want their husbands away from home for days and weeks on end, fishing. Kids are instructed to get an education, fishing is over, there’s no future in the business. What was once “a way of life”, processing and fishing jobs on the waterfront, have been replaced and relocated to inland industrial parks, and the Route 128 corridor.

Today’s waterfront is entirely different than in my day. The big off shore boats are gone; the inshore fleet is being regulated out of existence. Fish can be processed almost anywhere and any fresh fish business remaining in Gloucester can be accommodated by existing companies. Reserving more space for the fishing industry in our harbor is a smokescreen. Remember, at the zenith of our local fishing production in the 1950s when we often processed a million pounds of edible fish daily, that production was accomplished on 60% of our waterfront, if that! We have more useable available wharfage today in our harbor than existed in 1950 when our offshore and inshore fleet was at its record vessel numbers.

A portion of the Portuguese fishing fleet, circa 1947, at State Fish Pier

Gloucester and its well meaning harbor planners need to focus on a prudent long range economic mixed use plan for our harbor. We must look beyond the present and adopt a modern-day developmental concept resulting in a positive cash flow future for our harbor if our community is to keep pace economically.

Without forward thinking and a demonstrated willingness to accept change, any hope for our harbor’s future prosperity is lost. Gloucester’s harbor economy will remain mired in the past and only continue to negatively impact our community’s economic future. Without meaningful change, all of our taxpaying citizens will continue to subsidize an underutilized failing waterfront. That’s my common sense opinion.

F’O’C’S’LE SCUTTLEBUTT; Comments overheard following the last Fort zoning (hotel) hearing. IT’S NOT ABOUT HOTELS; IT’S ABOUT NOT WANTING ANY IMPROVEMENT IN ANY FORM AT THE FORT. Residents fear increasing real estate taxes will result. Any development might disturb the “business as usual – we’ve got ours” status quo mentality. I find this attitude sad, even selfish. When a few residents petition a few grandstanding, ranting, bloviating politicians, it only results in continued economic stagnation at the Fort. If this narrow attitude continues, our larger community of taxpaying citizens will be subsidizing the Fort and the rest of our failing waterfront forever!

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