Once the world’s preeminent fishing port, even today Gloucester is arguably its best known, heralded in literature, cinema and lore.
But Gloucester’s fishing industry is in steep decline, the epicenter of a regional disaster, declared days ago by the federal government. In a nation that imports 91 percent of its seafood, Gloucester has dropped nearly out of the top 20 ports in the U.S. based on landings volume, its fleet now barely 75 boats, according to a spokesman for the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, the charitable nonprofit permit bank that leases quota from acquired rights.
The degree of contraction is vividly expressed when today’s harvest in Gloucester is measured against its own history:
In only two years, according to the government’s annual report of domestic and global fisheries, released Wednesday, landings have declined by 63 percent, from 122.3 million pounds landed in 2009 to 77 million landed in 2011.
The precipitous decline was at odds with national trends, whose indicators, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are mostly pointing upward, and shoved Gloucester from 10th place in landings volume to 19th place.
A longer view creates a more dreary picture. Figures in Pringle’s “History of Gloucester” show that in 1891, a fleet of 374 boats landed 118 million pounds of fresh fish — not including landings of haddock and other stocks that supported the port’s 44 businesses outfitting boats over the winter.
Pringle did not clarify the strange statistical anomaly.
On a single day in 1917, roughly in the middle of the port’s apex period, more than 5 million pounds were landed, notes the website GoodMorningGloucester.com, quoting the historical site, downtothesea.com.
Gloucester was top o’ the world back then. Its tercentenary in 1923 was a time of unrivaled prosperity with Gorton’s feeding the world frozen, processed wild caught seafood for the first time. The industry kept its perch through the 1950s but as the post-war reconstruction produced factory trawlers that dramatized the outdated technology of Gloucester boats, the long decline began.
Elsewhere across the region, the figures are better, with landings in 2011 up 8 percent from 2010 to 2011; it took the Commerce Department more than 10 months since Gov. Deval Patrick’s filing of a brace of socio-economic studies last November to decide that the groundfishery on which Gloucester depends has legally failed.
The Sept. 13 formal disaster declaration has made at least feasible an effort, led by Sen. John Kerry, to leverage $100 million in disaster aid in the final days of the 112th Congress.
Landings in New Bedford declined a bit more than in Gloucester, 2009 to 2011, but the southern co-capital of New England fishing is diversified and depends much more on scallops than groundfish, and remains the No. 1 port in landings value, at $369 million last year, six times Gloucester’s $61 million in landings last year.
New England’s third port, Point Judith, R.I., which benefits from access to Georges Bank for scallops and groundfish and the Southern New England waters for squid, flatfish and species that remain in the warmer waters, actually edged forward with slightly higher landings in 2011 over 2009, the report, “Fisheries of the United States 2011,” shows.
On a global scale, the metrics of U.S. decline to afterthought producer have remained constant, with the government proud to boast its leadership in conservation and fisheries management. “When consumers go to the market for seafood,” NOAA said in a statistical snapshot of its annual report, “they can be assured that if the species is caught in the United States, it has been caught responsibly.”
But the odds of finding domestically caught seafood are getting higher. Ninety-one percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is now imported, a 5 percent increase in just the past year. The trade deficit remained at about $11 billion, but NOAA noted that an undetermined volume of “imported” seafood was actually caught in U.S. boats before sale for processing and import as a foreign product.
The vast majority of imports, 62 percent, come from Asia, with China by far the dominant supplier with 23 percent of the import market. Thailand is not far behind, supplying 16 percent of the imported seafood.
Much of the trade deficit is owed to aquaculture. A vegetarian feeder, tilapia, for example, is now the world’s fastest growing aquaculture product, with production passing 2.5 million metric tons, with the bulk of U.S. imports from China and Taiwan.
NOAA has pushed to jump-start the domestic aquaculture industry, without much to show for the effort.
Richard Gaines may be reached at 978-283-7000 x 3464, or email@example.com.