For hundreds of years New Englanders have looked to the ocean to make their fortune. Gloucester is America’s Oldest Fishing Port, its fleet famous for feeding a nation. Salem was long the center of the spice trade in North America and one of the busiest ports in the world.
Yet the notion of making a living on the water has taken a hit in recent decades. There are fewer fish to catch and fewer Gloucestermen chasing them. The world’s spice trade runs through the internet, you can no longer pay your taxes with pepper, and Salem is better known as a tourist town.
But two projects — one proposed, and one established and poised to expand — highlight the promise of the so-called Blue Economy as an engine for growth on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley.
First, there’s the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute, hard on the harbor across Main Street from Gorton’s and surrounded by fishing boats. Launched in 2013, the institute is the first in the world dedicated to the study of marine genomics. Equally impressive is its biotechnology academy, which provides students with hands-on training and the ability to earn certification, opening the door to good-paying jobs in a field hungry for skilled workers.
Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker visited the city to announce the expansion of the academy program at the Gloucester site. The state has invested serious money in the institute as part of a private-public partnership. The investment continues to pay off with the recent news that biotech firms in Boston are looking for GMGI to establish a separate training academy in that city’s Marine Industrial Park.
“There is quite a bit of potential,” GMGI Executive Director Chris Bolzan told reporter Taylor Ann Bradford. “These interested businesses have identified that this is a fantastic opportunity to train people quickly in an industry that has strong long-term prospects. There will be thousands of jobs that, with the right training, will not require a bachelor’s degree.”
The institute’s success is an indication Gloucester is seen as a viable alternative to biotech hotspots such as Cambridge’s Kendall Square and Boston’s Seaport District. And that reputation is emerging as the statewide industry continues to grow in places like Andover and North Andover.
In Salem, a partnership between the city and energy industry leaders called CommonwAealth Wind would transform 42 acres of undeveloped land on the waterfront into an offshore wind facility.
The city and its partner, Crowley Wind Services, see the area around Footprint Power as an ideal location for a “marshalling yard” and land base of operations for the offshore wind industry.
“If you look at the golden maps, this is one of the prime places to do offshore wind,” said Lars Pederson, CEO of Vineyard Wind, which hopes to build a facility off the coast of Massachusetts.
The partnership — which is still in the proposal stages — would create an estimated 400 full-time jobs and hundreds of part-time jobs over the first five years of construction.
“Rather than condominiums occupying the waterfront, we’re back in the seaport business,” said Bob Blair of Essex Point Pilots, which helps guide vessels in and out of Salem Harbor. “We have a real mission that’s going to run for decades regarding offshore wind.”
The leap into alternative energy would be a stunning turnaround for the site, which only seven years ago was home to a coal-burning power plant, one of the state’s top-polluting “Filthy Five.”
The projects prove emphatically that the region’s historic seafaring communities — Gloucester and Salem will turn 400 in the next few years — can continue to grow and evolve in ways that provide an example for the entire region.