Next week, we’ll hear shouts of Viva San Pietro as fishermen and their families carry the turquoise-robed statue of St. Peter through the winding streets of our city by the sea.
The procession is a big part of Fiesta, honoring the patron saint of fishermen in America’s oldest fishing port.
I first witnessed the celebration with my friends Angela and John Sanfilippo many years ago. The day was so hot that people took shelter under umbrellas during a morning mass in Gloucester’s St. Peter’s Square. I remember the withering heat, the aromas of spicy Italian sausages from carnival booths (where I lost $10 tossing hoops over elusive prizes), and I remember the Ferris wheel rising over the gaily-flagged fishing boats as I sought to focus on the Cardinal’s somber homily about Peter and the fishermen.
The incongruity of it all, the comingling of the sacred and profane, dazzled like the sun. I’d never witnessed anything like this celebration anywhere in America — certainly not on my beat as a maritime reporter in New England.
That was 20 years ago. I’ve since made Gloucester my home, drawn in part by Fiesta, the city’s rich fishing culture, and strong community, all now threatened by draconian federal fishing restrictions instituted May 1. The allowable catch of codfish in the Gulf of Maine has been slashed by 78 percent, and that of haddock, flounders, and other groundfish critical to Gloucester, by more than 50 percent. These severe cuts follow earlier catch reductions also aimed at rebuilding diminished groundfish stocks.
The new regulations will destroy a way of life that has supported Gloucester for 400 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which implemented them, did not adequately consider their economic impacts on Gloucester and other New England fishing communities.
What’s more, the science on which the cuts are based appears shaky. As a writer on both fisheries and the environment, I’ve not always agreed with fishermen. Now I do. For this reason, I support Attorney General Martha Coakley’s recent lawsuit against NOAA.
As we seek to replenish fish stocks and realize a vision of abundance worthy of St. Peter, we must not forget the fishermen. Despite the harsh cutbacks, fishermen must still cover house and boat payments and support their families. There is no safety net for fishermen nor have they received requested financial relief to compensate for the cutbacks.
If a fisherman cannot make ends meet, he will lose his boat. When one fisherman fails, the community loses valuable skills of fish-finding, net mending, boat handling, and a rare fortitude passed down from generation to generation. As the boats disappear, so too will the unloading docks, fish processing plants, ice houses, gear suppliers, and marine railways upon which a healthy commercial fishing port depends.
Fiesta celebrates the city’s lifeblood: commercial fishing. It also honors Gloucester’s forbears, the deep-water fishermen who sailed in schooners to the Grand Banks for halibut and cod and the many Gloucestermen who never returned from the sea, whose names are inscribed on bronze plaques by the famous fishermen’s statue. And it celebrates the women— the wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters, who have held together the community while their men are fishing.
At Fiesta it’s customary to offer prayers for the prosperity and safety of the fleet. This year, I imagine that many fishing families will be calling on St. Peter to sustain the city we love.
I am not a woman of prayer, but I will join those calling upon the federal courts to recognize what truly is at stake: a way of life that cannot be replaced.
Susan Pollack is an award-winning journalist, and author of “The Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Cookbook: Stories and Recipes.”