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The last of the seafaring life, at the Boston Fish Pier

Alex Earle, a fisherman on the Black Beauty, sorted lobster at the Boston Fish Pier.
Alex Earle, a fisherman on the Black Beauty, sorted lobster at the Boston Fish Pier.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

It’s 5 a.m. and the moon looms high. The cranes flanking the Seaport’s newest high-rise are stilled. At this hour, no buses cruise down the main boulevard, no corporate workers hurry to sleek office buildings, and the flat screens at Tony C’s Sports Bar & Grill are as black as the pre-dawn sky. But outside of Bay 21 on the Boston Fish Pier, the morning catch, jiggling like Jell-O, has already arrived.

Rocky Neck Fish owner Steve Gennodie spots the delivery: four cheesecloth bags full of shelled scallops so fresh they’re still twitching. He bellows “Goodbye, Sunshine!” to the boat captain who hauled them in from Provincetown. Mauricio Jantes, Gennodie’s head fish-cutter, slices open the cloth to reveal a shimmering mountain of fleshy white bivalves and pops one into his mouth.

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The workday starts before first light at the Boston Fish Pier, a vestige of a blue-collar Boston now surrounded by acres of gleaming glass towers, hotels, and condo buildings. What once defined the South Boston Waterfront is now an outlier, an oddity in fact. It is fair to ask, why is it still here? But also, would Boston be truly Boston if it were not?

A morning at the Boston Fish Pier
Early in the morning, workers are busy at the Boston Fish Pier hauling fish in from boats, and cutting large fish before shipping fish across the area. (Shelby Lum|Globe Staff)

For decades after its 1914 debut, the wharf churned with activity next to an expanse of undeveloped land and railroad tracks. Boats lined up 10 deep to offload their catch and sell it at the auction house, the stately building at the tip of the 1,200-foot pier. But dwindling stocks and heavy regulation buckled the industry in the early 2000s, pushing some occupants out of the pier, threatening those who remained, and ending the auction entirely. Nowadays, the wharf has undergone something of a revival, transformed into a bustling processing hub where trucks deliver more catch than trawlers, and fishmongers rely less on local sales than a global network of imports and exports.

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In an effort to preserve the neighborhood’s maritime history, Massport, the agency that has owned the pier since 1972, has thrown a line to the local fishing industry in recent years, keeping rents well below what new development projects in the Seaport typically fetch and funneling money into the maintenance of the 106-year-old wharf. Meanwhile, Rocky Neck and the 18 other seafood tenants that fill the pier’s twin brick row buildings have shifted their business models to meet changing consumer demands.

Workers at Atlantic Coast Seafood unloaded and sorted fish.
Workers at Atlantic Coast Seafood unloaded and sorted fish.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Still, questions about the pier’s future loom. In December, the abrupt closure of the No Name restaurant, the wharf’s oldest and most famed tenant, reminded the city of the increasing difficulty — and perhaps futility — of trying to preserve some aging landmarks. But for now, the seafood tenants have secured leases through 2029; there is a new decade of the old trade ahead.

And the latest catch has just arrived.

From the depths of Padre Pio to the dock of Atlantic Coast

The sky still black and temperatures in the teens, tubs of fresh fish emerge from the ice-filled depths of the Padre Pio, a 65-foot trawler docked outside Atlantic Coast Seafood, which has unloaded boats at the pier since 1986. As a wholesale seafood supplier rather than processor, owner Tory Bramante differs from his neighbors who buy, prepare, and sell seafood. Most of them rely on delivery trucks full of fish from foreign waters or from the Cape and Maine. Bramante owns three vessels — Padre Pio, America, and American Pride — that carry their catch from the Gulf of Maine directly to the Fish Pier docks.

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Back in 1964, a whopping 107.5 million pounds of fish landed in Boston, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which tracks the nation’s marine stocks. That number sank to a mere 5.6 million in 2000. The pier descended into not just financial, but physical ruin at the start of the millennium. Rotted pilings prompted the closure of the sole ice house on the wharf. Exposed bolts pierced holes in the hulls of docked boats. But over the past decade, the pier underwent a steady renovation, rebounding to land roughly 15.2 million pounds of fish in 2019. In total, Boston lands the third-most fish in the state, behind Gloucester and New Bedford. Those ports, too, have declined in recent years but remain national powerhouses, with 45.1 million and 103.3 million pounds landed, respectively, last year.

A bucket pulled fish up from below the Black Beauty.
A bucket pulled fish up from below the Black Beauty. Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Atlantic Coast stuck it out through the tumult, becoming the pier’s oldest seafood tenant. On this morning, as rows of icicles dangle from the railing of his Padre Pio, Bramante huddles next to a fiery heater in the unloading shed and eyes the incoming catch from underneath the hood of a black sweatshirt. The Wakefield native started in the fish business as a kid in the 1980s. Each morning, he rode shotgun next to his dad, Peter, past the derelict buildings and deserted parking lots of Northern Avenue.

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“Little by little, it all became glass and glitter,” Bramante says of the area surrounding the pier. “Even the names changed: Northern Avenue to Seaport Boulevard. South Boston to Seaport. It’s certainly better to look at nowadays, but it’s not a great ride home at night in the traffic.”

Back indoors, Eddie Damaso of Courthouse Fish Market in Cambridge is picking up his order for the day. Decades ago, a bevy of market owners and chefs would line up here before dawn, but so far today, Damaso is the only one to show. He and Bramante blame the rise of direct deliveries for the thinning crowd. These days, Atlantic Coast sells to food-service companies, like Sysco, that filet the fish and deliver it to the doorstep of fish markets and restaurants.

A flier hung in the window of the now closed No Name restaurant. No Name, shuttered at the end of 2019, had been in business for over 100 years.
A flier hung in the window of the now closed No Name restaurant. No Name, shuttered at the end of 2019, had been in business for over 100 years. Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

"I don’t know if it’s just people have gotten lazy in the age of Amazon where everyone thinks anything should be delivered to your door,” muses Bramante.

So long Sacred Cod

As the sun creeps toward the horizon, delivery trucks pour in from the Cape, New York, Canada, and Logan International Airport. Bay 21 is shared by Gennodie’s Rocky Neck Fish and Sal Patania’s stalwart Ideal Seafood. The 68-year-old Patania has worked the pier for decades. He spends this morning, like most mornings, sifting through a stack of carbon copy invoices.

Patania, who co-owns the 32-year-old business with his brother Frank, hails from a fishing family in Sicily that’s relied on the sea for their livelihood for a century. He recalls years during the 1960s when over a hundred million pounds of cod, haddock, and halibut landed at the Fish Pier, but today just a fraction of the product handled here comes from New England fish stocks.

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Frank Patania, treasurer at Ideal Seafood, in the doorway of one of Ideal's boats, Sammy Jo.
Frank Patania, treasurer at Ideal Seafood, in the doorway of one of Ideal's boats, Sammy Jo.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Less than a mile and a half — as the sea gull flies — from the pier, a 5-foot wooden Sacred Cod hangs above the House of Representatives chamber in the State House, a tribute to the fish that made New England a maritime mecca. But nowadays, the local catch comes with federal rules attached.

“It’s a different time now. It’s tougher now with the regulations," Patania says. “You have to be really careful or else you will get yourself in trouble. It’s not about catching the best or the most fish, but about following the rules.”

Over-fishing prompted the federal government to enact harsh restrictions on the now scarce Gulf of Maine cod. If commercial fishers exceed their catch limit — a number that can fluctuate mid-season — they face fines or a lost license. So Patania, Gennodie, and other local seafood sellers now look mostly to Iceland for their fix of the state’s signature fish.

New kid on the block

At just 39 years old, Jared Auerbach of Red’s Best at Bay 37 never knew a time when cod wasn’t restricted. The bearded Newton native combines the drawl of a Malibu surfer with the animation of an auctioneer. He’s as optimistic as Dory in “Finding Nemo.”

After graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2003, Auerbach got his first taste of the industry by working as a deckhand in New England and Alaskan waters. The experience hooked him. By then, entire sections of the Gulf of Maine, waters that stretch from Nova Scotia to the Cape, were off-limits for seasonal fishing. Boats were bound by stringent catch quotes. In 2008, he launched Red’s Best and moved onto the Fish Pier across from Atlantic Coast Seafood, the oldest business on the block.

Shane Walker, a worker at Maine Coast, sorted through a crate full of lobster.
Shane Walker, a worker at Maine Coast, sorted through a crate full of lobster.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe


Driving the business is a bit of technology that seems right at home in the new Seaport. Each shipment carries a QR code that links to a Web page detailing the timing and origin of a catch, as well as the biography and equipment of the captain. The goal is to foster a trustworthy and transparent relationship with the buyer, as well as an appreciation for the small-boat fishermen behind the catch.

“I showed up on the scene when there was this huge regulatory burden and asked, ‘Where do I fit in here?’” Auerbach says, adding that the new realities of the trade "demanded some innovation and resilience.”

Auerbach, who will occasionally just marvel out the window at Boston Harbor, respects the history and lore of the pier. But he recognizes that it’s looking forward, not back, that will keep the wharf and industry alive in the years to come.

“I see the beauty in the dichotomy of this old-school traditional way of life existing smack in the middle of this tech innovation center. I could have moved in anywhere, but I chose to be at the pier because I love it, respect it, and see opportunity here," he says.

Fish guts, a one-eyed mutt, and lunchtime cuts

Just as a horseman grows numb to the smell of manure, the fish-cutter learns, with time, to ignore the salty fish-gut funk. Yet there is no overcoming the nauseating stench of Polkadog Bakery, the gourmet dog treat company that moved into Bay 6 last April and churns out 700,000 pounds of dehydrated cod and haddock skins each year.

The Seaport towered over boats at the Fish Pier.
The Seaport towered over boats at the Fish Pier. Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

With outposts in the North End and Seaport, Polkadog embodies a boutique culture that is seemingly at odds with the grunge and grit of the fish industry.

“These are old-school guys who’ve never dreamed of giving their dog a gourmet treat. They definitely got a kick out of it,” says owner Deborah Suchman, who named the business after her one-eyed rescue mutt. But Polkadog fits surprisingly well into the pier’s ecosystem of tenants who not only share walls, but also lean on each other for supply — in Suchman’s case, leftover skin scraps.

Just before lunch, the Polkadog crew pops baking sheets of swirled, scaly skins into the dehydrator, while across the way in the other brick row building, Rocky Neck’s main fish-cutters, Fermin Rodrigues and Mauricio Jantes, stand before a hulking yellowfin tuna from the Gulf of Mexico and a dozen diminutive European branzino. While a Latin pop song plays, Rodriguez uses a 10-inch knife to saw through the 80-pound tuna while Jantes minces small silver slivers of the popular European bass. They dip their cold, scarred fingers into a bucket of steaming water to regain dexterity. Roughly half of what they prepare will stay in the United States. The rest will be loaded onto planes bound for Europe and Asia.

A severed fish head lay on a coiled rope at the Boston Fish Pier.
A severed fish head lay on a coiled rope at the Boston Fish Pier.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Each Friday before the new year, the duo, who both emigrated from El Salvador, would pop over to the No Name restaurant next door with some scallops or filets for the cooks to fry up for lunch. The tradition came to end when the 102-year-old eatery shuttered unceremoniously on Dec. 30.

“Don’t even bring it up,” Jantes says of the closure. “It makes me so sad.”

Massport said it’s too early to say what will become of the No Name space, where silverware still sits on the worn wooden tables.

A seaport in name only?

At an average of $15.29 per square foot, the seafood processing bays on the pier rent for a fraction of the cost of commercial spaces nearby. The 17-story glass tower at 101 Seaport Blvd., a mere half-mile from the pier, sold in 2016 for a stunning $1,027 per square foot, the highest price ever for a large office building in Boston.

Part of the reason why the rents are low is that Massport subsidizes the cost of running the pier, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Mehigan. In 2006, Massport shelled out $3.3 million to keep the then half-empty pier afloat, both literally and financially. But the authority’s contribution shrank to just $183,416 in 2019, when the 19 seafood bays were filled with tenants for the second year in a row.

“The cost to operate and maintain a more than 100-year-old structure is significant,” said Mehigan. “The Fish Pier is not a moneymaker for Massport, but part of the Massport mission is to support the maritime and seafood industries along the waterfront and preserve those blue-collar jobs.”

In 2017, local politicians — such as Nick Collins and Michael Flaherty, both of South Boston — succeeded in landing the pier on the National Register of Historic Places, in part to reassure the seafood businesses of their future on a rapidly changing waterfront. Massport, which did not seek the designation, has long voiced a commitment to preserving the pier. But the extent of the agency’s patient support wasn’t fully evident until the No Name closed. Bankruptcy filings revealed the landmark restaurant owed Massport nearly $100,000 in back rent and utilities.

No Name was a setback, but in many ways that patience has been rewarded. After more than a century, it is the pier’s central location within Boston that makes it so coveted by the industry. Midday trips to Logan and Conley Terminal take less than 10 minutes, and the nearby junction of Interstates 93 and 90 allows delivery trucks to more easily enter and exit the city. Plus, the communal, shared-wall layout of the pier lets fishmongers call on their neighbors to fill customers’ requests for the seafood they lack. If the businesses of the pier were forced to move elsewhere, tenants say, the fragile business ecosystem could suffer irreparable damage.

Alex Earle washed the deck of the Black Beauty at the Boston Fish Pier.
Alex Earle washed the deck of the Black Beauty at the Boston Fish Pier.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Clocking out

In the busy summer months, the unloading, cutting, and packaging spill into the night. But during this January lull, Jantes and Rodriguez spray down the bay around 3 p.m. Jantes sheds his fish-scale-speckled sweat shirt and orange rubber waders, aware that the only vestiges of the pier his wife wants coming home with him to Chelsea are a paycheck and the occasional filet.

Outside, seagulls peck at stray clams and caterers arrive in oversized vans to set up for a cocktail party inside the converted auction house. The stream of fish from the Padre Pio has ceased, but Tory Bramante still plugs away in his office. The sunset may be blocked by the towers of the Seaport Hotel, but its afterglow sprawls across the harbor, casting a rose-gold hue on the wharf and drawing to a close the 38,644th day of the Boston Fish Pier.



Hanna can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger.