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kept its perch through the 1950s but as the post-war reconstruction produced factory trawlers that dramatized the outdated technology of Gloucester boats, the long decline began.