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.