Friday, June 5, 2009

The Future of Gloucester’s Fishing Industry – Part II -- CHANGE

While many activists base their efforts on a fishing industry “comeback”, the reality is it isn’t going to happen. “Comeback”, meaning hundreds of meaningful shore side processing jobs, hundreds of new career fisherman on hopefully hundreds of boats....anything resembling the 1940s and ‘50s, is simply out of the question. Still there are those holding out hope for a return to the deluge volume of the early ‘50s! Dr. Carmine Gorga has publicly stated his only hope is “will we be ready....”

Since 1950, our once anchor industry has been on a downward spiral. There are many citizens of Gloucester who point to declining fish landings, being the result of governmental regulations, and a lack of resource compared to the industry heydays of the ‘40s and ‘50s. That is all true; however, there are even deeper reasons for Gloucester’s industry demise. I realize that over fishing and over regulation are often thought of as the main cause of our industry failing, however, I believe “change” in our society is the principle culprit.

Some activists subscribe to a renaissance in fish stocks as a result of federal resource conservation rules that currently govern our remaining few boats. These regulations for Gloucester fishermen are similarly enforced throughout the domestic fishing industry. Government regulations have become a way of life in the industry.

Before I discuss change and how it plays such an important role in our harbor planning of 2009, current planning boards and other governmental agencies should review a similar period in our time: the Great Depression. In many ways, our waterfront history of the ‘30s is repeating itself some eighty years later! In the mid 1930s at the height of the depression, Gloucester and its prime (only) industry, fishing, was in the doldrums. Unemployment was off the charts, if records were kept, fishermen were dumping their entire trips overboard outside the breakwater in protest to one and two cent per pound fish prices.

Dory Trawler Adventure
Unloading Trip at Boston Fish Pier 1951

Economically, we were losing to Boston in the ground fishing business.
Our fleet of ground fish dory trawlers was transitioning to the new dragging method. The ground fish industry that was growing and prospering in Boston, was declining in Gloucester. Our local, once leading roaring '20s waterfront with its gala fishermen races notoriety, propelling our image round the world, was over. There was a glimmer of change. A new type redfish was showing up in the Portuguese fleet’s nets of their newer draggers, such as the F/V Elvira Gaspar and Evelina M. Goulart. Dragging was the way of the future. Gloucester fishermen were responding slowly in those depression years, however, there was a light at the end of the tunnel and it was the lowly redfish.

The 1930s had their activists, the movers and shakers of our waterfront. Everett Jodrey, a barber by trade in a shop on Duncan Street, was the fishermen’s friend between trips. His granddaughter, Debbie Ryan, told me he was totally sympathetic to the fishermen’s plight. Jodrey had other friends and associates, Capt. Albert Arnold, Ben Pine, John J. Burke and Joe Mellow, a lobster dealer. Piney was a junk man originally, turned boat manager. Albert Arnold captained the gillnetter Phyllis A.. Only Johnnie Burke was college educated and a lawyer.

These were ordinary men who came together in extraordinary times. Everett Jodrey, father of the Jodrey State Fish Pier, dedicated in October 1938, and the above-mentioned activists had a far reaching vision; they addressed the need of a changing waterfront back in the 1930s. These ordinary men all possessed waterfront “street smarts”. They had a vision of the emerging dragger volume fishing. They capitalized on the timely arrival of Birdseye’s newly developed quick freezing method, thereby facilitating the redfish boon of the ‘40s and ‘50s. As highline Capt. Lloyd Campbell would say years later, “The redfish were eatin’ the keel out of the boat, you!”

The domestic fish industry, its products, and the fishermen delivering same, have changed ways dramatically. The consumer has changed and the products one demands at the supermarket are numerous and unheard of only a few years ago! Looking back and ahead the main ingredient missing in the fishing industry of the future is the availability of the men themselves. The world of harvesting the oceans has moved forward technologically almost beyond comprehension. The industry has outsmarted itself and is capable of catching and processing fish in previously unheard of volume.

While our anchor industry has changed, not only in Gloucester but fishing ports the world over, so to have the men that once made up our harvesting workforce. Fishermen of fifty years ago are no more and they’re not being replaced. In my youth, the often heard cry, “there’s no future in fishing, don’t go”, has been heeded – those who witnessed their fathers and others toil on the sea away from home and families for days, weeks at a time, no longer are willing to sacrifice and pay that price. There will always be fishermen and fish to catch, but it will not return to yesterday; the men and industry has moved on. We live in a different world. The soccer moms of today will not tolerate the absence of their breadwinners.

So where does that leave Gloucester? We have to rise to the occasion and reinvent ourselves. Fishing is no longer our way of life. It is our heritage and we in Gloucester should recognize this shift and proceed on a new course. We must change, adapt and accept new concepts to revitalize our economic future.

The whaling industry started in Nantucket. In less than 100 years it moved to New Bedford because the harbor of Nantucket could not accommodate the larger whaling vessels needed to hunt the sperm whale the world over. Both ports capitalize on their whaling heritage, and they do it to the letter. The whaling industry’s heyday lasted approximately 100 years. Gloucester’s fishing industry has been around almost 400 years, claiming over 5,000 lives. We’re America’s oldest seaport! That’s our heritage; people want to learn about our history. We need to do a better job in promoting our heritage and make that story our primary public relations mission to the world.

That’s the background. Today’s government leaders, activists, and harbor economic development planners need to start with this history. Next week’s blog will explore our harbor planning, the planners and course of action for our local governmental agencies relative to our key economic asset.....our waterfront of the future.


  1. Ron ~ I commend you in writing about the history & demise various ocean industries. I was born & raised in Gloucester & moved out (couldn't get away fast enough) too provincial & not flexible was Gloucester ~ I moved back later in life for a variety of reasons ~ now I see similiar attitudes ~ generally Gloucester doesn't like change ~ Change is a consant of life & to survive one needs to change the "attitude" ~ I was a boater & freqently off the coast of Maine ~ and when I visted Boothbay Harbor I always wondred why Gloucester couldn't see the possibilites in Tourism ~ Gloucester is prime ~ it has history, some shops are blossoming and it has the Boulevard, Beaches, Stage Fort Park ~ could use some B&Bs & hotels ~ Market Gloucester with Tourism to bring her into the 21st century ~ Surely, I am not the only one with these thoughts ~ My best to you ~ Namaste, Carol

  2. Incidentally, my creative art blog is ~ thanks ~ C

  3. Ron;
    How refreshing it is to have found your blog.
    Carol is right. Gloucester needs to wake up and be part of the 21st century.
    My ancesters all had whale ships in New Bedford.
    And NB was a wealthy prosperous town back in the 19th century
    but look at it now. Despite some feeble atempts to revitalize the waterfront the town is basicly a slum.
    The world has changed and so has the fishing industry.
    Gloucester could capitalise on their history and bring in some tourism.
    Development is not a bad thing if it is done right
    I hope somebody is listening

    Tony Smith

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