Building the harbor of the future in Gloucester

Gloucester's harbor from State Fish Pier.

By Jared Bennett


Ocean Alliance purchased the Tarr and Wonson factory in 2008.
Ocean Alliance purchased the Tarr and Wonson factory in 2008.

For long-time Gloucester residents, the Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory acts as a reference point. It’s a landmark that can be used for navigation when when entering the harbor, and when mapping the history of this city tied to the sea.

Paul Harling has lived here his entire life, working as a teacher and now curating a free commercial diving museum on the waterfront. The image that comes to his mind when discussing the fate of his city and it’s decline from fishing center to industrial dereliction revolves around the faded red Tarr and Wonson building that sticks out from the Rocky Neck peninsula.

“I bought a boat in the ‘50’s, I wanted to see Gloucester from the harbor,” Harling said. “I turned past that paint factory and looked in and the water was blood red from fish. I said ‘I’m not bringing my boat in there.’”

It’s an image that resonates anew as the city comes to grips with a new reality. The fish that once supported America’s first fishing port are no longer there, due to many reasons, including overfishing and mismanagement. The harbor that Harling saw as inundated by a fishing industry now largely sits empty, waiting for new uses to move in.

The paint factory, however, is brimming with new life. The Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit conservation research organization, bought the factory in 2008. It’s one example of the city’s concerted effort to bridge Gloucester’s past with a future-oriented economy. Since 2012, Gloucester has been developing a “Groundfish Port Recovery and Revitalization Plan which was released in February of 2014. The plan outlines three opportunities to develop Gloucester into a port city of the future: 1) target and market more abundant fish populations like redfish or dogfish, 2) foster marine science and research 3) establish a center for ocean technology.

Sarah Garcia is the city’s director of harbor development and planning. She said the state of the fishing industry throughout New England has forced the community to ask: “What’s the wedge? What the new maritime economy that keeps us working on the waterfront year round, and meaningful work?”

Diminishing prospects for traditional fishermen lead policymakers like Garcia to believe that the “new maritime economy” will not be dominated by a single industry, like commercial groundfish throughout the last century, but will be a piecemeal of small, flexible manifestations of Gloucester’s seafaring history. The process is still in developing stages, but examples of marine innovation already illustrate the potential – and problems – accompanying the impending transition.

A landmark redefined

The old Tarr and Wonson building became famous in the 19th century after the company invented a copper-based paint to protect the bottom of ocean vessels from organisms which grow to slow and damage a ship. Iain Kerr, the executive director and CEO of Ocean Alliance, said the impact that this innovation had on America’s economy can not be understated. “The first American industrial revolution was actually commercial fishing,” said Kerr, who is from Scotland. “But people forget, because it was underneath the deck.” The site has been deemed eligible for listing on the National Historic Register, not for it’s architectural significance, but as a small industrial complex.

Only one of the facilities’ three buildings has been rehabilitated enough to house work activities, but Kerr has big plans for the site. Kerr sees the value in investing in a fixer-upper like the factory. “I could have bought a building on the other side of town, and it could have been $4 million cheaper,” Kerr said. The benefits , he indicated, come from owning a small industrial complex hanging conveniently right over the water where Ocean Alliance works and from owning a piece of Gloucester’s maritime tradition. “If you want to engage people with ocean issues, what better way to do it than with multiple stories?”  he said. “Here we have fueling America’s industrial revolution, plus the story of not just a beautiful building but a beautiful industrial building.”

From inside the factory, Ocean Alliance is hoping to introduce drones into their studies of whale stress. To do so, they’ve partnered with Olin College of Engineering to outfit a helicopter drone capable of flying above whales as they surface to breath. The drone is affectionately called the “Snot Bot,” but the first hurdle the team needs to pass is observing what effect the machine will have on whales’ behavior.

In many ways, the Snot Bot and old paint factory are just the first steps in Kerr’s larger vision. He aims to fill the remaining buildings with more engineers, scientists, students or anyone working on interesting projects. “The lab we’re trying to build here is a Swiss Army tool,” Kerr said.  “I want space to do our stuff, but also if other scientists want to come in and use our tools, great. Or I’m happy to have someone who plays the violin come in and see how that affects whales.”

A lesson from Silicon Valley

Kerr also sees an added benefit in working in Gloucester. Ocean Alliance works in conservation science, meaning its work is most effective when it can be used directly by people out on the water. Being in a community like Gloucester means Kerr can tap into a wealth of knowledge right in its own backyard. Like Kerr, Gloucester fishermen are used to making due with scant resources. “Real innovators are the ones who say ‘I can’t afford these three pieces, what can we do without it?’” Kerr said.

Tarr and Wonson became internationally known after inventing copper based antifouling paint.
Tarr and Wonson became internationally known after inventing copper-based antifouling paint.

That is exactly the mindset city planner Sarah Garcia hopes will catch on in Gloucester. She uses the term “cluster economics,” a concept more familiar with tech startups in Silicon Valley or Cambridge’s Kendall Square. The idea is to concentrate innovators to build cooperation and improve on the chances of a chance discovery. For Garcia, cluster economics in Gloucester more specifically means “if your business is on the water you should be around people who are on the water.” Gloucester residents who have worked for generations on fishing boats provide a practical intellectual capital to help scientists reach their goals. That’s why everyone likes to be in Kendall Square,” Garcia said. “It’s not just that everyone needs Wi-Fi, it’s that everyones working on similar stuff.”

Tom Balf is the executive director at Maritime Gloucester, a maritime museum and education center. Balf said the benefit of attracting this type of research and development has been seen in industries beyond commercial fishing. In a town like Gloucester where unemployment sits at around 9 percent, the only benefits people want to see are jobs. “You see this in the medical field where a lot of the jobs that are done at a pharmaceutical firm can be done by a well-trained high school graduate,” Balf said. “If you can generate revenue from what you’re doing on the ocean, there could be and should be well-paying jobs in the trades.”

A future for fish farms 

Oceanic Innovation's fish farm is made up of six 6,000 gallon tanks.
Oceanic Innovation’s fish farm is made up of six 6,000 gallon tanks.

Across town on the Jodrey State Fish Pier, Jan Schlichtmann’s goals for his upstart Oceanic Innovations LLC are not far off from those of the Ocean Alliance. Schlichtmann is from nearby Beverly, Mass., and now lives in Salem, so he is connected to the state’s coastal communities. After seeing the decline of fishing towns like Gloucester, Schlichtmann decided to take action and formed Oceanic Innovations to grow fish in an indoor aquaculture environment. “We want to get a new kind of marine industrial work here in our harbors, otherwise our harbors are just going to be condos and restaurants,” Schlichtmann said.

The aquaculture system Schlichtmann has installed comprises of six 6,000-gallon tanks where he grows everything from sea-run trout, cod, to flounder and crabs. The self-maintaining system grows nutrients in three separate tanks and is filtered by shellfish.

Schlichtmann has been operating in Gloucester since the fall of 2013, and while he has established regular buyers, he has yet to see the town embrace his concept in the form of investment. Schlichtmann said the city has large issues to address before Gloucester sees an influx of investors like himself.

Jan Schlitchmann tends to a new group of sea-run trout.
Jan Schlitchtmann tends to a new group of sea-run trout.

The problems, he indicated, start with the tendency to revert back to old habits of thinking and relying on the same industry that has failed in recent years. “Aquaculture will never come to Gloucester because they look at aquaculture as the enemy of the fishermen,” Schlichtmann explained. Instead, many of the activities in the harbor are designed to use old methods to catch new fish, or to help Gloucester fishermen wait out stringent government regulations on catch limits. The harbor revitalization plan’s stated goal is to provide a “bridge” for the local economy until catch limits are relaxed. 

“The wild fishery is not sustainable and the wild fisher puts his whole future in the hands of government regulators who are under pressure to protect the stock,” Schlichtmann said. “When you are so focused on the next catch, you can’t really think of the future.”

Talk is cheap

Gloucester still lags behind the recovery of other New England towns, most notably New Bedford, which has taken pains to become a hub for activity surrounding renewable energies. Schlichtmann points to New Bedford as an example of what Gloucester needs to do to turn discussion into action. “That’s the difference between Gloucester and New Bedford, you have one place that has built itself a future and another place that has built committees. Instead of talking about it, I wanted to be able to say, ‘this is what it looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like to be a part of it.’”

That’s where Schlichtmann decided to step in, to provide a model for future endeavors to follow and prove that waterfront innovation is possible. In the process, Oceanic Innovations fills several voids left as fisheries collapsed. On the one hand, aquaculture has proven itself in other parts of the world to be both sustainable and profitable at a time when the overwhelming majority of seafood in the U.S. comes from overseas. On the other, it provides jobs for  scientists and fishermen alike. Schlichtmann’s model involves using local fishermen to catch wild fish, albeit significantly less than the commercial wild catch model, and use “sea ranching” techniques to breed and grow those fish, and the indoor aquaculture to grow large amounts of product in a small space.

Kerr’s Ocean Alliance and Schlichtmann’s Oceanic Innovations both present the kind of multifaceted, future-oriented marine industry that city officials are trying to cultivate in Gloucester. Both recognize the city as an investment, a place where their ideas might thrive if met with enthusiasm and likeminded peers. But lifelong residents like Paul Harling are more than a little skeptical. “I’ve heard a lot of ideas being thrown around,” Harling said. “But you look at the harbor, and you look at Main Street, it’s been empty for years now. I don’t know how they can bring that back.”

About jared_bennett 3 Articles
Jared is a multimedia journalist and graduate student at Emerson College. He currently works at WBUR as a freelance digital producer and at the Conservation Law Foundation helping to communicate ocean conservation issues. Jared uses creative digital storytelling to shed light on environmental, social and public affairs issues.