Walking the fine line between those who want to preserve the renowned fishing industry of Gloucester, Massachusetts, long into the future and those who see that industry as already nearly dead, NY Times reporter Mark Kurlansky examines the history of the community, its ties to the sea, and its very uncertain economic future. At the same time, he also worries about the future of the Atlantic Ocean itself as a resource, one now so endangered that unless the federal government institutes "overall eco-system management," and not just quotas on specific catches, it will soon die. The government has wasted too much time on short-term "remedies," he believes, and has done no comprehensive long-term planning for the eco-system on which the industry depends. Ultimately, the "scientists" responsible for the health of our ocean have made too many mistakes, and fishermen in Gloucester and elsewhere are paying the price.
Kurlansky describes Gloucester from its earliest discoveries by the Vikings to its first settlements, emphasizing its colonial fishing industry, a time in which people would routinely catch cod that were four or five feet long and halibut weighing 200 - 400 pounds. Between colonial times and 1991, when the unexpected The Perfect Storm struck, the city has lost six thousand Gloucester fishermen and many hundreds of vessels at sea, yet the fishing industry persists. The evolution of large trawlers and draggers, and the arrival of mammoth ships from Japan and Russia to fish just offshore, led the local industry to try to protect itself by getting exclusive fishing zones and the two-hundred mile limit established, but "[continued] stern dragging has endangered two-thirds of the world's fish stocks," and the prospects for the future look bleak.
Waves of Jewish, Sicilian, and Portuguese immigrants have kept the city socially vibrant, and the fishing boats filled with willing workers. Their cultural contributions and festivals, especially St. Peter's Fiesta in July, described in detail here, are part of the fabric of society and a fully-attended joy for the entire community. The city also has a long history as an art colony, with Fitz Hugh (Henry) Lane, Winslow Homer, William Morris Hunt, Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, Emile Gruppe, and even Edward Hopper taking advantage of the special light reflected off the sea to give luminosity to their paintings. T. S. Eliot vacationed in Gloucester, Rudyard Kipling wrote Captains Courageous while living in Gloucester, and NY playwright Israel Horovitz has produced his plays in Gloucester for almost forty years.
Still, the community sees itself almost exclusively as a fishing port and wants to remain one. In the 1980s, the fishing community convinced the city to zone the entire waterfront for commercial maritime activities only. "Someday fishing will improve," they believe, and then they will have the land they need to expand. "Otherwise it will turn into Newport." With these zoning regulations in place, there's no possibility that that will happen or that tourism will become an industry to fill the economic gap left by the decimated fishing industry. There are no docking facilities for pleasure boats, and the extensive waterfront is a weedy wasteland with no new building and no hotel. In 2008, the battle continues to rage between the "preservationists" who want to preserve the fishing industry and its control of the waterfront and those who believe that a mixture of uses might better serve both the community and the economy. So far the fishermen are hanging tough, hoping for a renewal of their fishing stocks. Mary Whipple