By Gail McCarthy
---- — The 1986 setting for the play “North Shore Fish” — now showing at Gloucester Stage resuming Wednesday night — hints at a foreboding crisis in the fishing industry that started as a trickle in the mid-1980s, and has become a veritable deluge in 2013.
But while the dwindling fish landings feeding into the background story for the Israel Horovitz play continue into the 21st century, it is under dramatically different circumstances.
Local fishermen today are fighting to maintain their livelihood against the pressures of a federal bureaucracy they believe wants to shut them down, but the workers who manned the plentiful fish processing plants in the 1980s and in Horovitz’s play faced a vanishing way of life due to automation, foreign competition and eventually, yes, a dwindling number of landings.
In the mid-1980s, millions of pounds of fish were landed daily by the Gloucester-based fleet — compared to the landings at the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange on Harbor Loop last Thursday, which was 7,700 pounds.
Interviews with those who process fish, the fishermen and one long-time boat insurer paint a picture illustrating the downward spiral and tectonic shift set off by a web of fishing regulations. The tickle-down effect impacted the local economy in America’s oldest seaport.
In 1986, the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan was introduced to reduce fishing mortality of heavily fished groundfish stocks and to promote rebuilding.
State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a long-standing fishing industry advocate, put the changes in perspective as the industry began to downsize.
“In the mid-80s and early-90s, there was the idea that the fish were depleted on George’s Bank and so began a buyout program. So we went from a large-boat fleet to a small-boat fleet,” she said. The typical fishing vessels then generally ranged from 85 feet to 110 feet. Today, most are between 40 feet to 60 feet, and go after inshore cod and other groundfish, with this year’s cod landing limits federally cut by 78 percent.
“Unfortunately today there is no place else to transition to. We went from a big-boat fleet to predominantly a small-boat fleet and now there is nothing smaller to be,” said Ferrante. “In 1986, there was still a path to an industry. It was a smaller, tighter and more consolidated industry. But today they are facing the potential of an extinguished industry.”
There was a shore-side consequence to the transition.
“The large boat fleet would bring in millions of pounds a fish a day, and then all of sudden that came to a stop,” she said. “But what is the same in 1986 as well as now, is that those involved in the industry are confronted with a huge change of culture and a change in a way of life.”
Vito Giacalone, president of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund and a policy official with the Northeast Seafood Coalition, noted that, in the early 1980s, there were approximately 175 groundfish vessels operating out of Gloucester. Today, there are fewer than half that.
However, there are pockets of those who survive on both fronts — the fishermen and the fish processors.
Jim Turner, owner of Turner Seafood in Gloucester, has downsized but has found success in a smaller boutique fish processing business behind the Smith Street fish market.
In 1985, he and a partner bought the company Atlantic Seafood, which was later renamed Good Harbor Fillet.
“Back in the early 1960s, there was no such thing as a regulation. But the 1980s brought in the institution of a lot of the fishing regulations,” he recalled. “There was a lot turmoil and frustration among the fishermen. That was the start of the decline but it remained vibrant in the beginning.”
Fresh and frozen
In 1985, the plant they bought had both a fresh and frozen processing line.
“They were actually buying fresh fish and processing it, cutting it and then freezing it and breading it. Then came regulations and prices became cost prohibitive and it switched over to buying frozen or importing frozen fish,” said Turner. “The fresh market for processing just died out because you couldn’t economically buy the fish locally and bread it at competitive prices.”
Most of the fresh fish now goes to the fresh market.
“People don’t freeze local cod and sell it,” he said. “That stopped during the ‘80s with the institution of all the fishing regulations.”
Turner understands the chagrin of the fishermen.
“There was a plan in place and the fish stocks were supposed to be rebuilt, and they assured the fishermen that was the case. Year after year, the fishermen obeyed the rules and we’re still in this mess,” he said.
Turner sold his portion of Good Harbor Fillet in 1990; and last year, the company was bought out and moved out of Gloucester, taking the local jobs with it.
Gloucester fishing Capt. Sam Novello, who has fished for 61 years starting when he was nine years old, summed up changes he’s seen over three decades.
“Today we don’t fish — we are regulated to death,” he said. “What they did to the city of Gloucester is a shame in terms of the regulations. There used to be a million pounds a day. There used to be 10 fish houses and now there are just a few.”
Ron Gilson, who insured about 95 percent of the fleet in the mid 1980s, acknowledged that the heyday is gone, “and it is never coming back.”
“We were a vibrant community and we were all about fish,” recalled Gilson, who also authored the book “An Island No More,” depicting life on the waterfront. “The city of Gloucester was like Hershey, Pennsylvania. They make chocolate and we made fish. Everybody was somehow involved in the industry here or had a close relative in the business. It was an exciting time.”
Joey Ciaramitaro, who with his cousin Frank Ciaramitaro, runs Capt. Joe & Sons, remembers when the whole harbor was lined with fish processing plants.
“This port can never be what it once was when everyone here was working on the waterfront at the time playwright Israel Horovitz was writing about,” he said. “In that era, about 80 percent of people living in the area were working in the fish business or were related to someone in the fish business.”
Gorton’s, which became a registered trademark in 1875, has also evolved. Its main office on Rogers Street, in the heart of Gloucester, was established in 1906.
Paul Coz, Gorton’s vice president of human resources here, talked about the recent changes in the business compared to the setting of Horovitz’s stage drama.
“The characters portrayed in the play were hand packing fish. To me, the biggest thing that has changed is the level of automation that is involved in our processing facilities,” Coz said. “While many decades ago we used to have jobs that were hand-packing types of positions, those positions have now been automated. High-speed packaging equipment does that work now.”
He also noted that the company today just deals with frozen fish.
In the play “North Shore Fish,” the characters talk about the dire impact on the plant after losing a contract for fish for McDonald’s.
For Gorton’s, the company in fact developed the product for McDonald’s filet-o-fish and remains the primary supplier, said Coz.
The changing environment
Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, explained that fishing has become “a limited access fishery.”
“It has undergone management transitions, gear restrictions, closed areas, seasonal closures, trip limits, and so forth,” she said. “Today, the groundfish fishery abides by one of the most stringent management systems in the world.”
As a young man entering the fish processing business full time in 1989, Ciaramitaro and his cousin never envisioned the current state of industry. Capt. Joe & Sons are in their 60th year of business but it is a much changed enterprise.
“We can scratch out a living for the two of us, but when our grandfather and fathers ran it, it was a fish processing plant, processing whiting for A&P supermarkets, as well as handling other fish,” he said. “When things were slow, they would do rewraps of frozen fish. That’s when frozen fish which was wrapped in a certain brand would be re-wrapped with another label.”
This was the backdrop of Horovitz’s play, which Ciaramitaro said captures the essence of what was happening on the Gloucester waterfront.
In the 1980s, there were two plants on their property on the inner harbor, one run by their fathers and the other one rented out.
“There used to be 200 people working at the businesses, now there are two,” he said.
By 1991, the company was handling lobsters in addition to the groundfish business, but as the groundfish landings diminished and in the aftermath of the opening of the fish auction, there was less fish to process, said Ciaramitaro. In 1997, they began to only handle lobsters.
Foreign fish explosion
Gloucester-based fisherman Richard Burgess survived the implosion that began in the mid-80s, which he said was possible because the government had not yet closed fishing grounds. But today, he said there is just a “minuscule” number of boats fishing.
“The fishery service is hell bent to put us out of service. The more they take from us by not letting us fish, the more money they make,” said Burgess, referring to tariffs on imported fish.
“The year before last, the fishery service made $106 million on tariffs for foreign fish,” Burgess noted. “Last year, we took a 22 percent reduction and they made $136 million by taking 22 percent of our stock and importing the difference.
“They get tax on every imported pound of fish,” he said. “Now they give us a 78 percent reduction in catch and just imagine the amount of money they will make.”
Capt. Novello shares his concerns.
“We are buying fish from China and you know how they catch it? Some use dynamite,” said Novello, referring to a practice of using explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. The practice has been widely reported in the South China Sea, with its consequent destruction to the surrounding ecosystem.
Burgess further noted a current practice of fishing vessels from various countries that freeze their catch at sea, and then put the catch into container ships to ship around the world to China. There, he said, it is processed to increase the weight per fillet by 100 percent — then refrozen, placed back into containers and shipped back to the United States, where it makes its way to the supermarkets, into school lunches and for military use.
“God only knows what kind of processing and chemicals are used over there and then the fisheries service makes money on it as an import,” said Burgess.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.