Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Lights are Still on at Gloucester's Waterfront

(Photograph by Ernie Morin)

The industrial waterfront is the defining characteristic of the city we all love and cherish. It is an engine that drives a significant part of our economy and brings people to Gloucester from all over the world, visitors who are fascinated by the work that goes on here and by the beauty of the harbor and the city itself. Without a working waterfront there really is no Gloucester, at least as those of us who have spent our lives here understand it, including residents who have arrived more recently, drawn by the city’s special quality of light, a rugged granite-girded landscape, our stunning architecture reaching back to the town’s colonial origins, the diversity of our people, an experienced workforce, broadening employment opportunities, two thriving industrial parks, and a quality and authenticity of life that only a real place like Gloucester can offer.

Fishing has been a way of life in Gloucester since the Dorchester Company of Puritans landed here in 1623. For almost 400 years, Gloucester Harbor has been the center of one of the country’s most important commercial fishing communities. Even with the strictest federal regulations ever imposed on the ground fish industry, Gloucester is still a vital working port and a regional hub for the New England fishing industry. Many millions of pounds of fish and shellfish are being unloaded every year in Gloucester—last year alone 94.4 million pounds, bringing in 46.8 millions dollars; and the year before, 117.4 million pounds at 47.3 million dollars. Boats from Gloucester and from other ports in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island are unloading in Gloucester (and some seek temporary dockage here, to fish from Gloucester for periods during the year); there are two fish auctions, many critical shore side support businesses, other key elements of commercial fishing infrastructure; businesses like Neptune’s Harvest are thriving and growing, while new businesses are starting up.

Gloucester is not a dead seaport; neither is the fishing industry “moribund” or the waterfront “stagnant.” In 1978, the Gloucester harbor became a “Designated Port Area” in order to protect the viability of the harbor for marine industrial usage. Given the ongoing intensive efforts to rebuild ground fish stocks by 2014, the evolving character of the fishing fleet, modernization of the shipping industry, seafood processing trends, growing demands for boat repair and construction of energy efficient vessels, and other marine trends, the Port of Gloucester will continue into the future to be an important regional hub port for commercial fishing (for ground fish and other species) and for other marine related industries and activities. Essential to this is the maintenance of the Designated Port Area, which Vito Giacalone will be addressing tonight, in order to ensure a continued, expanded, and re-invigorated commitment to marine related industries and activities, and, in particular, to commercial fishing, in the port of Gloucester. But, it is a fact that Gloucester also faces new challenges and opportunities.

Existing infrastructure needs to be modernized, including commercial fishing infrastructure. Investment in new docking and processing facilities is necessary, not only because they are needed now—every docking space assigned to commercial fishing is currently in use and we need more–but also because when ground fish stocks rebound, which scientists tell us will be six years from now, we want Gloucester people fishing for them, landing, and processing them, not some other community or country. In addition, Gloucester is well positioned to become a world leader in marine research and technology in some or all of the following areas: climate change, fish and fisheries, marine biotechnology, marine electronics, marine sources of alternative energy, and others. Gloucester’s large natural harbor, its proximity to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, the extent and variety of the marine know-how of its residents and the people it draws to it, the work ethic prized and practiced here—all these and more are elements from which to forge highly successful collaborations between fisheries and marine science and technology. Valerie Nelson will be speaking about this tonight.

Since federal regulations began to become restrictive fifteen years ago, Gloucester Harbor has still seen the following developments on the waterfront, among others:

• Restructuring of the State Fish Pier and new dockage
• Rebuilding of North Side of Fish Pier
• Building of Stalls Building on the State Fish Pier
• Creation of Fish Auction by the Ciulla Family
• A rebuilt Captain Carlo’s Restaurant
• Intershell wholesalers and processors; development of products from by-products
• New England Marine Industrial
• Intershell expanded down the Fort – bought the old bait company, D & B Bait
• Pigeon Cove Trading Company bought out by Whole Foods Market
• St. Peter’s Park Marina rebuilt with State Funding
• Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center
• Development of Latitude 43 from the popular McT’s and Captain’s Courageous
• Expansion of Gloucester House (function room)
• Cruiseport (2007)
• Connolly’s Retail Store
• Neptune’s Harvest
• National Fish
• Paint Factory – purchase and preservation by Whale Ocean Alliance (2008)
• Playgrounds at the Fort and Cripple Cove
• Expansion of Cripple Cove Marina
• Expansion of Whale Watch Industry (Yankee Fleet bought by employees)
• Thomas P. Lannon Schooner
• East Gloucester Marine – gigantic new wharf facility
• Development of Herring Fleet

Here are some longstanding businesses which are still a vital part of the industry:

• Rose’s Marine; vessel repair, machine ship, dockage facilities
• Gloucester Marine Railways
• Felicia Oil, and dockage facilities
• Cape Pond Ice
• Mortillaro Lobster
• North Atlantic Fish
• Ocean Crest Seafood, Inc.

Other developments in the last fifteen years:

• Fishermen’s Health Plan
• Northeast Seafood Coalition
• Use of LNG money for development of harbor entities, e.g., Permit Bank, Gloucester Maritime Heritage Museum.

Just this year alone:

3 million in new capital spending on the Fort
80 million worth of business on the street
Jobs in the hundreds
Wages in the range of 5 million

Further needs for the waterfront:

1. Gloucester needs pre-treatment infrastructure to prevent continued exporting of revenue streams and jobs.
2. Protein recovery is another key infrastructure that is lacking in our port.
3. Dock and piers could be a good collaborative effort between the city and property owners that do not currently utilize their entire water sheet area.
4. Pre-treatment and short haul shipping and truck and bus parking.
5. A community boating facility; sailing and rowing for all

This is just a brief snapshot, but I hope it will help to dispel the myth of a dying industry and a waterfront on which “the lights are out.” This is not to say that we have laurels to rest on, or that there hasn’t been a painful downside to the collapse of stocks and the imposition of severe federal regulations, a downside acutely experienced not only by fishermen and their families but by waterfront property owners and their employees and families. It is only the beginning for a revitalization of our waterfront that will continue to make Gloucester one of the region’s most significant hub-ports as well as becoming a center for bio-marine research and development. And that brings with it the added benefits of increased tourism and the growth and expansion of downtown businesses—and yes, a centrally located hotel, but not on the Fort—more jobs, and an expanded tax base, all driven by the waterfront itself.

The economic question is important, indeed vital, and we must all work together to support the fishing industry and to sustain a 21st century waterfront. But there is another issue of equal importance, another dimension we need to include in the conversation. We all live here because of that quality of life I’ve spoken about. But we also live here because of our attachment to the place itself, to Gloucester, to Cape Ann. Place is not only where we live, but also where we get our bearings from. Place is who we are and how we feel about ourselves, how we’re anchored in the world. Place is our very identity, “the geography of our being,” as Charles Olson, who lived down the Fort, put it. And if we lose place, or undermine its character, whittle it away year by year by inappropriate development—chopping up neighborhoods, driving people away from the houses they were born or grew up in— we destroy the very basis of our lives.

Author Mark Kurlansky, who has traveled the world and written many books about his encounters with some of the most exotic places and people, warns us in his latest book, The Last Fish Tale, not to undermine our identity as “American’s oldest fishing port and most original town.” Don’t go the way of so many fishing ports that sold their souls, bartering away their heritage, to become resort communities, only to regret it, Kurlansky cautions us. Don’t let tourism with its service economy overwhelm Gloucester’s gritty blue collar marine industrial character; for tourism is only the icing on our economic cake, not the cake itself. Or to shift the metaphor: the waterfront is the goose that lays the golden egg that feeds our economy and brings people to Gloucester. Kill the goose and there will be no more egg.

Kurlansky writes that we must celebrate the fact that even in the face of the strictest federal regulations Gloucester has remained a major port, second in New England only to New Bedford, with five hundred working fishermen and an annual catch that made us the nation’s tenth largest port. This is not a fish tale, Kurlansky asserts, “nor a (fictional) Gloucester story,” but, as he says, “an improbable and remarkable story of survival.”

We need people like Mark Kurlansky, who writes from outside the city, and photographer Ernie Morin who documents Gloucester’s daily life from the level of our own streets, to remind us who we are and what we mean, both to ourselves and the world, because living here, caught up in the stresses of daily life, the place often become invisible to us. We take Gloucester for granted. Living here daily, knowing each other, working together, even arguing together, we have been given an enormous gift, the gift of Community and of the ocean that surrounds and sustains us. Even if we do not fish ourselves or our families did not follow the sea, living in Gloucester, brought up at the ocean’s margins, we all follow the sea; and as the waterfront, which is the very heart and soul of Gloucester, stands or falls, so do we all. Let’s commit ourselves to working together to keep our waterfront working. This is not romanticism; it’s not a yearning for the past, as some have argued—it’s not obstructionism. It’s who we are and what we are. Lose it and we lose ourselves and everything else that matters about our lives here.

(Delivered as an address at Citizens for Gloucester Harbor's public forum, "Fresh Ideas for Gloucester Harbor," Monday, December 8, 2008, City Hall, Gloucester)


Mark L. Power said...

Well said, Peter, and very informative too for an outsider who still regards his moments in Gloucester with fondness.

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