This town’s last national burst of buzz came from the movie version of “The Perfect Storm,” in which desperate fishermen going farther and farther out in search of dwindling stocks of swordfish were swept into the abyss by a hurricane. You may soon hear about Gloucester again, as visionary leaders chart out what they hope is a perfect scenario of renewal. There are still hundreds of working fishermen here, but officials now talk of Gloucester becoming a cluster for a much broader “marine economy.” Picture an aquatic Silicon Valley — a center of research on the “wired ocean” and a workshop for entrepreneurs developing products based on discoveries from the deep.
“This is what’s happening to the city, this is where we’re going,” vows Mayor Carolyn Kirk. “Come hell or high water, we’re going there.”
Touring the city this week, there was ample evidence that Gloucester can build on its seafaring heritage, even as it seeks to develop economic niches beyond fishing.
Many coastal cities in New England have turned to tourism as their fishing industries have shrunk. Last month, Gloucester opened a new HarborWalk to introduce visitors to the town’s history. Yet it won’t be a Disneyland; the town wants to maintain a working waterfront — one where innovative research occurs along with traditional fishing.
In Hodgkins Cove, the University of Massachusetts has revived a pelagic fish research station to track the travels of tuna, swordfish, and turtles, creatures that travel hundreds and thousands of miles, facing many overfishing and habitat threats along the way. Meanwhile, the whale-researching organization Ocean Alliance has moved its offices from landlocked Lincoln down to the water’s edge — to the site of a defunct company that once pioneered copper paint to keep barnacles and worms from attaching to ship hulls. The group’s research vessel has been used to study the effect of the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill on whales.
Other sites in Gloucester hint at more commercial possibilities. In a quiet inland office park was a company called Proteus, which specializes in a process for frozen fried fish and chicken that keeps moisture from escaping while preventing grease from soaking the meat during frying, thus creating lower-fat foods.
Gloucester has a reputation for clinging to its past. As cuts loom in the amount of cod and yellowtail flounder that fishermen are allowed to catch, the Massachusetts congressional delegation, including senators John Kerry and Scott Brown, has continued to plead for federal relief for the industry. The lawmakers have continued to rail against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s methods of measuring fish stocks, and Brown has called for the firing of NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco.
To be sure, city officials in Gloucester tend to back fishermen’s complaints about excessive regulation. But in Gloucester, the lines separating scientists and fishermen are quietly blurring. Already, researchers at the pelagic research center are working with commercial fishermen on their boats to tag tuna for research. Mayor Kirk and Gloucester harbor planning director Sarah Garcia said they see NOAA’s research operations, the Ocean Alliance, and the pelagic center as vital economic anchors that complement the city’s traditional industry — especially now that there are only at best 500 active fishermen left in town.
Garcia said that based on her national travels, Gloucester could be the East Coast counterpart to San Diego and its Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “We’re still pretty good at extracting marine resources,” Garcia said, noting that Gloucester still had the nation’s 13th richest fishery in 2010, valued at $57 million. “But we have the chance to become a national leader in analyzing the resource and attracting small businesses associated with that.”
Gloucester faces competition, not just from San Diego but also from places like Seattle. So it deserves support from the Commonwealth, which has richly supported not just the life sciences in Cambridge and Worcester but also the arts-oriented revitalization of cities like North Adams and Pittsfield.
Gloucester represents a chance for another approach still. The 19th-century poet Hiram Rich wrote about shipwrecks off Gloucester, “Though boats go down, men build anew.” As the numbers of actual fishermen go down in Gloucester, women and men are building a new maritime future.