By almost any measure, Gloucester's commercial fishing effort today is a pale reflection of what it was when Gloucester and Gloucestermen were synonymous with the sea's riches and its risks.
One measure is this sobering statistic: In 1879, in Fishtown's heyday, far more Gloucestermen lost their lives at sea — 249 — than there are active fishermen today.
Indeed, more Gloucestermen were lost — 143 of them crewing on 13 vessels — in a single gale on Georges Bank in February 1879 than there are Gloucester fishermen today.
The port's best connected experts — Larry Ciulla, president of the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, and Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition — estimate the number of active fishermen is no more than 100, not counting lobstermen.
This rough calculation derives from the 40 to 50 small day boats that take one, two or three people to the inshore grounds, and the half dozen or so bigger boats that still venture out with crews of five or six for Georges Bank.
In 2008, the year of the most recent statistics from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the port handled 120 million pounds of fish.
The town that once topped the world was a modest ninth in the nation in landing value behind scallop king New Bedford and the crab ports of Alaska, among others fishing towns.
Even in its diminished state, the modern fishing port of Gloucester evinces a profile that defines it as the offspring of the more epic and bountiful times of the mid 20th, 19th and even 18th centuries.
In the port today — as then — ownership and operation are locally based.
The labor management relationship itself seems quaint — a sharing of profits, should there be any. The splits vary a bit from boat to boat, depending on its prey, but the arrangement is standard. After expenses are taken off the top, the captain will get a small percentage, perhaps 10 percent, and the boat and the crew split the net proceeds.
"It is still the last industry in America that operates on a profit-sharing (principle)," said Russell Sherman, who owns and captains the Lady Jane, a 72-foot dragger that employs a crew of two and is capable of longer offshore trips.
"It's always been that way, all the way back," said Joseph E. Garland, Gloucester's preeminent historian whose "Down to the Sea: The Fishing Schooners of Gloucester" tells how the community found itself fated by geology, geography, history and culture to make a commitment to fishing that has lasted nearly 400 years.
No other port — not even New Bedford, which had its whaling fandango and now makes room for freight along the wharfs — has kept at fishing with such mulish commitment or for so long as Gloucester.
But it was with the creation of the schooner, a swift and weatherly marvel of a sailing vessel, that Gloucester prospered — and suffered — as no other port in the world.
"One may wonder how in the world the saltwater country hamlet of Essex (just north of Gloucester) found the room for 15 shipyards on the mudbanks of its tidal creek, or how they built and launched 170 fishing schooners in one three-year stretch of the 1850s," Garland wrote in "Down to the Sea."
"Or where Gloucester a generation before its peak found the dockage, let along the swinging room in the anchorage, for a fishing fleet that long before the Civil War was growing at an astonishing rate."
In 1828, Garland continued, the fleet included 154 vessels over 20 tons. Despite losses, that number grew to 189 in 1844. And by 1859, there were no fewer than 301 Gloucester schooners, crewed by 3,568 men and boys, augmented by another fleet of inshore boats.
"No class of vessels in history, possibly," he wrote, "served its home port in so paradoxical a role as both servant and master. The men and the schooners of Gloucester, in the days when she sent forth more of both to bring back more fish than any other port in the world, were in the eyes of the world as one.
"Gloucestermen, they were called with wonder, schooners and men, so close was the symbiosis — some might say the deadly embrace — of town and sea."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.