Imagining a new future for Gloucester’s fish and fishermen

Gloucester's harbor from State Fish Pier.

By Jared Bennett


Boats at rest in Gloucester's harbor.
Boats at rest in Gloucester’s harbor.

In a town like Gloucester, even as changes come as rapidly as high tide, reminders of the past always show through.

At Captain Joe’s Wholesale Lobster, for example, Frank Ciamitaro waits for boats to come in at the same upstairs office where his grandfather sat after founding Captain Joe’s over 50 years ago. Ciamitaro runs Captain Joe’s with his cousin, Joe Ciamitaro. The company started as a groundfish wholesaler at a time when fish like Atlantic cod made cities like Gloucester, the oldest continuous fishing harbor in the country, akin to a boom town.

 But Gloucester and the Ciamitaros’ business are both different now, signaled not the least bit by the stacks of lobster pots surrounding the yard.

 “We’ve seen a whole change since we were 9 years old coming down here to work for the summers,” Frank Ciamitaro said.

Changes reach from Main Street to Captain Joe’s boat launch between the town’s only two stoplights; symptoms of a decline in fish populations, controversial management and a changing reality familiar to fishing towns up and down the coasts. The Northeast groundfish fishery was declared eligible for federal disaster relief earlier this year, putting up to $75 million on the table for aid. The announcement only drove home what local fishermen see with their own eyes.

 “My cousin and I work here now,” Ciamitaro said, “but we had 100 people working for us, on this property. Now the town is a ghost town.”

Finding a remedy

A citywide effort is underway in Gloucester to determine the future for fish and fishermen proactively, transforming the city into a 21st century harbor along the way. The challenge has resulted in a “Groundfish Port Recovery and Revitalization Plan” aiming to “continue to be a steward of sustainable fishing practices while promoting global innovation and sound management of the ecosystem to ensure a strong, vibrant diversified fishing industry for the next 400 years and beyond.”

That is a lofty goal and one that at times seems at odds with itself. Many in Gloucester feel tied to a wild catch model that government regulations on groundfish have made unrealistic, while others are hesitant to see Gloucester’s economy go down with a fish population that may never return. “The important thing,” explained Tom Balf, the executive director of Maritime Gloucester, a maritime museum and education facility, “is that families and jobs are meaningfully connected to the ocean. The goal is to maintain our maritime heritage so we’re not feeling we lost that identity, we don’t say ‘Oh jeez, we sold out the harbor to restaurants.”

The effort has already seen gains throughout town. A $1.2 million scenic Harborwalk now connects the waterfront to Main Street. The city regained ownership of a 1.82-acre parcel of land, uninspiringly named IC-42, with the hopes of luring businesses to a central waterfront location. But for planning to move from cosmetic gestures to changing the economic trajectory the city must make hard choices about its relationship with the ocean.

Harbor planners have established a three-pronged attack on the problem, starting with introducing more variety into fishermen’s target species. The other two options involve becoming a center for ocean science and attracting investments into local marine technology based on the city’s long history of private sector innovation in the fishing industry. “Remember that it is a fishing town,” Balf said, “but it really needs to rethink in the service of the ocean, where we don’t just extract as many fish as we can from the ocean.”

Gloucester-based businesses and academics have applied for federal grants to develop byproducts of shellfish for pharmaceuticals, using “green cement” to create a more natural ecosystem in the harbor and exploring the potential of robotics in underwater refueling. Valerie Nelson sits on the mayor’s maritime working group. She said that “Gloucester has the potential for innovative work and development to get jobs growing out of the harbor.” But, Nelson and most involved with the planning process recognize that becoming a hub of marine startups is unlikely without a nearby university. “It’s far more likely for a lot of innovation in fishing to come out of here than in robotics.” That means taking a serious look at how Gloucester plans to work with fish populations and government regulators.

A long decline

Maritime Gloucester is a good place to start searching for new-look Gloucester precisely because it focuses as Balf said, by “taking something from the past and using that to provide information and spark dialogue around a contemporary issue.”

To most in Gloucester, that past starts and ends with cod, the ubiquitous fish of the Northern Atlantic. After peaking in the late 1980s, cod populations began raised flags in the 1990s, when a string of weak spawning seasons led the federal government to install strict catch limits to rehabilitate the population. Multiple regulatory attempts using a variety of methods, catch limits, restricted days at sea, and sector regulations all proved unable to bring the cod population back to health, and were labeled heavy-handed by New Englanders. Currently, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the North Atlantic cod population sits at about one third the 1994 levels.

Captain Joe’s Wholesale Lobster dealt mainly in groundfish like cod until switching its target to lobsters in 1997. “We’re lucky in that we had been looking forward, we knew that the regulations were coming,” Ciamitaro said. “When we went to lobsters there were probably a lot of fish still around.”

It’s a decision that kept Captain Joe’s in business while similar companies disappeared. “Now there are three big players (fish buying companies),” Ciamitaro said. “There might have been 30. There was boat after boat after boat lined up.”

Even to an outsider it is clear that less fish come through Gloucester these days, and less fishermen heading out each morning. “There are technically 75 active boats, but probably 25-30 that are really fishing,” explained Galf.

The decline in active fishermen is undisputed, but what is debated on docks and houses throughout New England is the role federal mandates have played in the decline.

Most in Gloucester recognize the fragility of the fish population and the importance of regulations to maintain stability. As the city’s director of harbor planning and development Sarah Garcia puts it, some sort of rehabilitation plan is needed, but “(Gloucester is) not running a zoological reserve, we’re managing it for use.”

The most recent wave of regulations cut 77 percent of the allowed landings for Gulf of Maine cod.

“It’s useful to have regulations where it forces action,” Garcia said, “and rebuilding schedules that could rebuild and not disrupt the socio-economic trajectory.”

Just what that might look like currently eludes policymakers.  As Tom Galf explained it, fishery models are a “wicked problem” which aside from a familiar New England term, also describes a mathematical problem that involves too many inputs to properly model and predict. “A lot of what controls the fish population we don’t understand,” said Galf.

Finding a solution

The revitalization of the fish population takes this uncertainty into account by looking for opportunities to make use of abundant species like Dogfish and Redfish. The state recently awarded Gloucester money to purchase Redfish processing equipment to explore the market on this species.

The language of the port revitalization plan suggests that even as the wheels begin to turn, most can’t imagine a future independent of groundfish. The harbor plan states “These measures will provide relief to the fishermen and shoreside servicers directly impacted by these measures, preserve the historic fishing industry by providing a ‘bridge’ until restrictions are eased.”

That’s the struggle that Balf at the Maritime Gloucester offices sees at the center of this transition: to place all bets on a new-look Gloucester or to hedge those bets in the industry that built the city. “Part of the challenge is for old timers there is this ‘Oh this is just a normal cycle and the fish will come back,’” Balf said, “but its not clear that the past can inform future models.”

The good news is that Gloucester is one of the prime locations for rethinking coastal life. Balf said Gloucester has all the ingredients for a successful harbor, chief among them is experience. “There is tremendous intellectual capital in a place like Gloucester where people have fished for so long.”

Regardless of plans and models, the fishing industry in Gloucester is no longer the sure thing it was in years past, and with it the maritime heritage is in trouble. “Before it was like, you went fishing with your father, your grandfather,” Ciamitaro said. But when asked whether his son will continue the third generation fishing company, Ciamitaro answers without hesitation. “We’re the end of the line. I’d rather my son get his education, (fishing) is too unpredictable. I don’t think anyone’s getting their kids into this business.” That suggests policymakers may be looking for a salve for the ailing fisheries just as fishermen exit the scene.

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.