Friday, May 29, 2009

The Future of Gloucester's Fishing Industry - Part I

There will always be fishing in Gloucester. There will always be men to go fishing. That is our heritage and has been for close to 400 years. It is not, however, Gloucester’s future.

If you were an adult in the late 1940s or 1950s, you witnessed the big show! Sixty years ago, Gloucester’s fishing industry was at its peak. We were the recognized world leader in production of volume fish products. Since the mid-1950s, our dominance in the industry has steadily declined.

Gorton Pew's F/V Mother Ann Being Towed
After Launching in Essex, 1947

To understand this rise and fall of our once anchor industry, we must review a few basics. At the end of the great depression in the early ‘40s, our fleet of offshore vessels had completed a transition from dory fishing to a motorized dragging method of fishing. Gloucester’s fleet was on the threshold of adopting a vastly different, more efficient, method of catching fish. A few newer draggers were being built just before WW II. A new modern fish pier was created on Five Pound Island, complete with processing stalls and freezer coming on line in 1938. Clarence Birdseye introduced quick freezing and the Portuguese fishermen were occasionally catching a new, strange redfish in their trawls and nets. All these factors came together in the early 1940s. Pearl Harbor and WW II brought immense increased demand for our newly discovered redfish. This required the modern day quick-freezing method of processing that completed the more salt.

What we didn’t know at the time, was the epic era we were about to enter and the historic impact our fishing products would have on this country and the European war torn world economies.

For the decade between 1945 and 1955, Gloucester and our citizens enjoyed unparalleled prosperity. This is the era I grew up in and it really was a big show. Our city was totally involved. If the family’s breadwinner wasn’t a fisherman or a wharf worker, it was a rarity. It seemed our entire population was intimately involved in supporting our anchor industry. It was an exciting era; it was Gloucester’s way of life. In those days, I thought Gloucester’s business, fishing, would go on forever!

Graduating from Gloucester High School in 1951, I immediately took a job on this busy waterfront. It was what many young men and women did in those days.

Joe Codinha's Ultra-Modern Redfish Processing Plant, off East Main Street, 1945

The F/V Benjamin C. highline crew, pictured on the vessel's whaleback, steaming home from the fishing banks in 1947.
Center: Highline Capt. Joe Ciarametaro, surrounded by his crew

Maiden Trip F/V Felicia, Leaving Gloucester under command of Capt. Salvatore Nicastro

Now some 50 plus years later, our 200 big boat offshore fleet of the 1950s is reduced to a couple dozen inshore boats, several hailing from Maine ports because they are legally prohibited from landing dragger lobsters in Maine. These lobsters are a vital by-catch, extra cash to the crew, the main incentive for the Maine draggers to land their fish and their lobsters in Gloucester. Therefore, the reality is, the Gloucester inshore fleet includes these additional visiting Maine boats.

Today, our main processing fresh fish firms are the display auction, Ocean Crest Seafood and maybe one or two other fresh fish handlers. The Gloucester Seafood Display Auction handled 20,600 pounds of fish yesterday, a sharp contrast to a routine one million pound day in 1950. In the year 1946, the Master Mariner's yearbook listed 19 fish handling firms on Gloucester's waterfront, and we were only just beginning to ramp up to our phenomenal postwar fish production.

What is Gloucester’s fishing future? If you buy into the Harvard PHD trained, self-declared industry experts, our fishing industry is on the verge of a major comeback. They say our only concern should be “will we be ready”, the inference being, will Gloucester be prepared to handle the anticipated deluge of fish to be delivered in the near future!

Preposterous!!! The Carmine Gorgas, David Rubens and Peter Bearses of our community, along with other well-meaning activists, are, in my mind, wrong on their prognosis of the so-called comeback of our once world leadership in the fishing industry. I intend to prove my case in succeeding blogs.

Next Week , Part II: CHANGE

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